Taking the step from Assistant Head to Deputy Head

I have been asked a couple of times recently if I have any advice on, or know of anything which has been written about, taking the step from Assistant Head to Deputy Head.  I don’t think I have seen any blog posts or articles on this subject – please do let me know in the Comments below if you are aware of anything I have missed.

I did suggest it was quite difficult to offer specific advice to Assistant Heads considering making this move, as the AH role varies significantly (and I am also aware of the role of Associate Assistant Head, which further adds to the complexity of the picture).  Similarly, the role of Deputy Head can cover a wide range of areas of responsibility.  When I started teaching, the role of Assistant Head didn’t exist, and schools were led by Heads and Deputies.  There was, however, the role of ‘Senior Teacher’ which appeared to straddle the Middle Leadership/Senior Leadership divide, and it is this, I think, which developed into the Assistant Head role in the second half of my career.

So if you are an Assistant Head considering a Deputy Headship application, what would I suggest?

Given that Assistant Headship and Deputy Headship roles vary significantly, I would advise that you begin by looking extremely closely at the job description and person specification of the particular position in which you are interested, and do a careful matching exercise to your own developing skills.  What does the school appear to want and need in its next Deputy Head?  How can you demonstrate that you are building the capacity to step up to this new level of responsibility?  What experiences have you had, what capabilities and competences can you demonstrate, and what IMPACT have you had in your current role, which would suggest that you have the potential to step up?

Remember it is your future, and what you COULD do, which is of so much more interest to the selection panel than your past and what you HAVE done.  Please avoid the application which is, in effect, a ‘list of everything I have done so far’ which leaves the selection panel to do the hard work of making the connections between your achievements and your potential, particularly in connection with the post they have advertised.  Be selective.  It may be hard to leave out achievements that you are proud of, but you need to discriminate and focus on those aspects of your developing leadership skills which are most relevant to this specific Deputy role.  Keep asking yourself the ‘So what?’ question.  What does this show about you that should be of interest to the selection panel recruiting their new Deputy?

And consider why this role appeals.  The panel will clearly be focused on what you will BRING to the job, the team, and the school (and if it is an internal promotion, what you will bring to your new responsibility and professional persona, in addition to what you now offer).  Do use the word ‘bring’, if you can, in your written application and/or at interview.  But you will inevitably also be thinking about what you will GAIN.  Why does this role energise and motivate you?  What opportunities and appealing fresh challenges will it offer?

Recognise that a Deputy Headship will involve a wider range of responsibilities, and a corresponding expanded ‘sphere of influence’, compared with your current role.  It will require you to do things you have never done before.  How can you show convincingly that you are ready for new challenges and fully prepared to continue to learn and to grow as a leader?  Show how this enthuses and excites you.

It may be that as a Deputy, you have the opportunity to deputise for the head on occasion – a privilege and a thrill (and perhaps initially terrifying!)  If this is the case, you need to start to consider the role of the head and how it differs from the role of a senior leader.   (And it certainly DOES differ – more strategic and less operational; more public-facing and involving more PR; more about vision and lifting and inspiring others).  Do read ‘Making the Leap – Moving from Deputy to Head’ which will support you in your Deputy role, helping you develop your understanding of the head’s unique perspective, and also enable you to decide whether this is a step you might wish one day to make, and how you can best prepare yourself for that.

In the meantime, in your Assistant Head role, take advantage of the opportunity to learn from your fellow Senior Leadership Team colleagues.  Can you begin to build your expertise in other areas?  Try to strengthen your skills and extend your experiences where you can – you will be a more valuable senior team member as a result, and will also start to prepare yourself for the new responsibilities a Deputy role might involve.

Good luck!

Photo credit: John Berry

4 thoughts on “Taking the step from Assistant Head to Deputy Head

  1. Yes – very true that AHT roles vary from school to school. In my school I (as an AHT) report directly to the Head; have remits where I develop/decide upon school strategy and present frequently to the governing body on aspects of school. I am also aware of other structures where AHT report to a DHT and are much more tasked with ‘delivering/monirtoring’ policies/strategies developed by others.

    Of courses there are other models too – I think these are probably extremes. One thing I learned from an unsuccessful HT application (feedback from LA rep) was don’t assume that Governors will know about the structure in your school – some saw AHT and thought ‘underling’ as I had not made enough of the way my school organises things in my letter.


    1. Thanks for your comment, Steve. Yes, applying for headship from an AH role can be difficult if govs don’t understand that some AHs are, in effect, DHs without the recognition. status or salary….! Your experience sounds positive.


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