Leading an Independent School

Why you might want to

If you’d suggested when I was at school, when I was training to be a teacher or in the early years of my career that I would at some stage move into the independent sector, I would never have believed you.  I was entirely state school educated, as was everyone I knew.  My parents had both left school at 14.  I was the first in my family to complete a degree.  I went on to a PGCE and taught in four state schools in the next 15 years.  Independent schools simply weren’t on the radar.

But when I was Head of Sixth Form I decided that I was ready to step up to be a deputy. We’d moved from one side of the country to the other when I took up that post, so weren’t ready to move again.  I looked for deputy headships in my local area.  I had an interview for a deputy headship in a state school – a girls’ school – which, if I’m honest, I thought I was going to get. They had just appointed the male deputy to be the head of the school. The school had never had a male head before, the incoming head hadn’t actually proved to be that strong as a deputy, and the community was still reeling. I was sure they would want to appoint a strong woman as the new deputy. The interview went well and I was feeling confident. They appointed another man.

The following week I had an interview for a deputy headship in a girls’ independent day school. I didn’t think I stood a chance. All the other candidates were already working in the sector. I felt out on a limb. But I liked the school, and the head, staff and governors I met. Completely against expectations, they chose me.

I loved it. I loved the autonomy, the freedom from DfE initiatives which might or might not be relevant to the individual school’s context. I didn’t miss Ofsted. I loved being able to make decisions which felt right for this particular school. I loved the ethos, the atmosphere and the focus on learning. I stayed there for five years and then went on to lead a similar school – another girls’ independent day school – for ten years. I never ever regretted the decision.

I fully understand that this is not what many teachers/leaders would choose, and I respect that. But if I’d never taught across the two sectors I’d never have understood how much binds us, rather than separates us. I’d never have realised how ‘normal’ independent school pupils can be, and the staff, and the parents. The pupils certainly weren’t all privileged and pampered. They needed strong teaching and good pastoral care as much as any state school pupil I’d ever met. If I hadn’t had this experience, I’d probably have taken my (false) assumptions, pre-conceptions and, dare I say, prejudices, to my grave. I learnt so much from all six schools I taught in, and my career was richer as a result.

And I found so much more joy in headship than I ever expected to.

How you can prepare

I was the head of this independent school for ten years and, although I loved it, ten years in one school, the final decade of thirty years in teaching/school leadership, felt like enough for me.  I didn’t want to move to a second headship.  So I went about professionally reinventing myself.

Since 2010, I’ve spent time encouraging and support aspiring leaders at all levels.  Twitter, blogging, TeachMeets and conferences have been very positive channels with respect to this networking.  #WomenEd is a shining example.

One of the things I’ve been involved in has been a four-week online course on ‘Leading an Independent School’.  Andrew Hampton, a recently serving independent school head, and I developed the course and facilitate it together.  It’s designed for those whose next step may be Senior Leadership, or headship, in an independent school.  In September 2023 we begin working with our 37th cohort.  A significant number of those who have completed the course are now heads. Whenever this happens, Andrew and I feel like proud parents.

I knew little about online learning when we started, and suspect my initial thoughts about it were relatively negative – wouldn’t this be impersonal, faceless, dry and dehumanising?  Wouldn’t it, in fact, be dull?

I have learnt so much – as, I think, we all have now, courtesy of the pandemic.

Online learning can work well for busy professionals who want to invest in their personal and professional development but don’t want too many days out of school.  It’s flexible in that they decide when they want to spend time on it, so they can work at a time and in a way which suits them.  The participants make up a supportive, energising and enthusiastic community and there is warmth and humour in our exchanges.  We’ve had a great deal of positive feedback, and those who have completed it often continue to connect with us, use our support in Senior Leadership and headship selection processes, and let us know how they subsequently fare, especially when they have news of success to share.

So how does it work?

The course runs for four consecutive weeks, and those who register need to commit to spending 3-4 hours a week on it. They decide whether to organise this time in short bursts or longer blocks, whatever fits best with their other personal and professional commitments.

The course covers: vision and values, marketing, governance and accountability, schools as businesses, and leading an independent school through an ISI inspection.  Tasks include reading, exploring scenarios, watching videos, doing research, writing posts and reading and responding to posts written by fellow participants.

Each week there is a 1-2 hour online synchronous hotseat: a ‘Welcome’ hotseat in week one (held on Zoom) and online Q & A sessions (text-based only) with a marketing professional, an experienced chair of governors, and an experienced bursar/school business manager in weeks two, three and four.  These text exchanges are fast and furious, and enjoyable!  Participants then need to reread and reflect on the discussion thread after the event and pull out their main learning points.  If they are unable to be online during the hotseat itself, they leave questions and comments in advance, read the discussion afterwards and still access the learning.

The course is specifically targeted at those considering independent school leadership, both at SLT and headship level.  It’s also very competitively priced, as we recognise that some of those who decide to sign up choose to be self-funding.  If you think the course might be of use and interest to you, visit:


It would be good to have you with us!

Photo credit: John Berry. With former pupils at a school reunion.

This post was originally published on @staffrm in 2016

5 thoughts on “Leading an Independent School

  1. The Leading an Independent School course was a breath of fresh air. In addition to opportunities to glean information from experts in the fields of marketing, finance, and governance, Jill and Andrew’s personalised approach to communication meant that I really felt that I learnt a lot on this course. The hotseat format, whilst initially seeming both daunting and exhausting, allowed for delegates to communicate; with the expert, the course leaders and with each other. This led to some really interesting debates as well as providing a platform for sharing best practice.

    The course materials were interesting and informative and fed into the assignments, which aimed to support individual attendees in combining recently acquired knowledge with pre-existing understanding, values and aspiration, to address a number of scenarios pertinent to a new Headship. I found that the work I was completing between each week’s session consolidated the previous hotseat session as well as helping me to focus my thoughts towards my current school and my potential headship destination.

    I would highly recommend this course and despite the hard work involved, thoroughly enjoyed being on it!

    Best wishes,

    Zinnia Wilkinson

    Director of Pastoral Care


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