The transition to headship

Since I finished as a head in 2010 I have completed a part-time Professional Doctorate in Education at Nottingham.  It’s been a long journey, and hard work (harder than I initially anticipated, I think) but following the viva – the oral examination where you justify your thesis before two examiners (one internal to the university where you have studied, and one external) – I passed.  I am now, finally, Dr Jill Berry….

I chose to focus my research on the transition from deputy head to head. This is a transition I made in my own career, when I moved to headship, after five years as a deputy, in 2000.  It seemed to me that being a deputy was the best possible preparation for being a head.  It gives you a ‘taste’ of the role – when your head is out of school, people look to you to lead and that can help you decide whether taking the next step is a challenge which appeals.  I think I knew I wanted to be a head when I realised how much I actually enjoyed it when the head was out – despite liking and respecting both the heads I deputised for!

However, in many respects being a head is quite a different job.  You are more strategic and less operational; more of a figure-head who represents the school than a day-to-day solution-finder and problem-solver.  You step back, and step up. I don’t think leadership itself at Middle, Senior and headship level is dramatically different – what made you a good Head of Department, for example, will help to make you a good head.  But the scale/scope changes, and it requires a shift in your professional persona.  You have to negotiate this shift while still remaining true to who you are and what you stand for.

I wanted to look closely at the process you go through as you move from being a deputy to being a head – in particular, that key time between being appointed (“getting the badge”) and formally taking up the role (“sitting in the chair”).  I tracked the journey of six deputies who had already been appointed to headship through their last months as deputies into their first months of headship.  I visited them three times – twice in the schools where they were deputies (around Easter, and at the end of the summer term), and then a third time in January of the following academic year when they had had a term of headship, and the Christmas break to draw breath.  On each occasion I interviewed them, shadowed them as they went about their deputy/head role, and also discussed how my participants were managing the transition with those who worked most closely with them, and/or who knew them best (including colleagues, governors, wives and husbands).  From my research I developed a number of findings about the transition, which I detail below.

My findings

Making the transition to first-time headship is a process which involves negotiating the tensions, and finding balance, between inheriting the role from your predecessor and inhabiting the role and making it your own. Throughout this process both incoming head, and the members of the school community they join, undergo reciprocal socialisation into a new role and a new relationship, as both the new head and the new school influences, and is influenced by, the other.

Beneath this overarching message sit three sub-findings:

  1. The period in between being appointed and formally taking up the role, the lead-in period, offers crucial opportunities to begin to tune in to the new school context, to start to know and to be known. It is a challenging time as the head-elect prepares to leave well (handing over their deputy head responsibilities and readying the school for their departure) while at the same time plans to begin well in their new role, preparing the school for their arrival.
  2. The relationship which develops between outgoing and incoming head has a significant impact on the process of transition and the new head’s capacity to establish themselves, during the lead-in period and in the early months in post. Although incoming heads have to negotiate this relationship, they are not able fully to control it. In addition, the legacy the outgoing head leaves behind presents both challenges and opportunities to their successor.
  3. There are a number of ways in which heads-elect can prepare to take up the role of school leader, but they ultimately learn how to be a head from being a head. Because of the reciprocal socialisation process the incoming head and the school community they join undergo, the school leader role and the dynamic between leader and led continue to evolve. The incoming heads may prepare as fully as they can, yet it is impossible for them fully to anticipate how it will be once they take up the role. Although they have observed how their new school operates from the vantage point of the lead-in period, the context changes when they are in post and become part of that landscape. They will meet early unexpected challenges which will test them, including those which arise from reciprocal socialisation, but such challenges also give them the opportunity to prove themselves and to make their mark.”

I am grateful to the six new heads who gave time to this research project at a very busy point in their professional lives.  Balancing the demands of your deputy role while preparing to step up to headship (and all were joining new schools, moving house, and relocating families) can be tricky.

In order to protect the identity of these participants, I applied to restrict publication of the thesis. However, I reported what I learnt in a book for Crown House – ‘Making the Leap: Moving from Deputy Headship to Headship’ (2016) which I hope will be useful to future generations of aspiring/new heads.

Photo credit: John Berry  The day I passed the viva!

This post was originally published on @staffrm in 2016



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