The reality of being a woman serving headteacher in the UK

On Saturday 12th September 2020, #WomenEd ran a webinar on the subject of what it is currently like to be a woman serving head in this country. The webinar was ably hosted by the wonderful Keziah Featherstone (@keziah70) and featured eleven practising school leaders: Nav Sanghara (@NavSanghara), Caroline Derbyshire (@Morsecat), Helena Marsh (@HelenaMarsh81), Binks Neate-Evans (@BinksNeateEvans), Helen Keenan (@hbkeenan), Christalla Jamil @ChristallaJ), Allana Gay (@AllanaG13), Caroline Barlow (@BarlowCaroline), Mareme Mufwoko (@MMufwoko), Ruth Whymark (@ruth_whymark) and Claire Price (@ClairePrice1). It was a superb event.

This post summarises the responses to some of the questions, which I thought were well worth sharing. A huge thank you to all contributors – your views and experiences were fascinating, and should be of such help to other aspiring and serving heads, perhaps especially the women in this group.

On the best preparation for headship:

“Doing other jobs on the SLT has been very helpful, as you develop experience, confidence & decision-making capital. NPQH is worth doing for networks, thinking time & reading – though it isn’t essential. Know who you are!” (Caroline Barlow)

“The experience of working alongside a part-time experienced head, as a co-head, was an excellent route in. Clarity and coherence of ethos and vision are crucial to co-headship.” (Ruth Whymark)

“All aspiring heads have gaps in their experience and interest. You move from being a specialist Senior Leader to a generalist headteacher. NPQH showed me that you don’t HAVE to be an expert in everything. Be yourself, and make the best use of others’ skills. ” (Caroline Derbyshire)

“The Future Leaders’ programme was very useful for me. It made me think, got me reading about leadership and built my confidence.” (Allana Gay)

“The idea of ‘readiness’ is interesting! Different people have different paths, and there is no one way to show/know you’re ‘ready’. Don’t be too critical of yourself and any gaps in your skill set.” (Helena Marsh)

“A secondment with SSAT gave me the opportunity to see different schools and to reflect on the kind of school that would suit me. Use the support of others (and then support others in your turn). Be positive and build your confidence over time.” (Caroline Barlow)

“Have a leadership coach, and read this book!” (Helena Marsh)

What advice would you offer aspiring women heads?

“Don’t listen to those who say the job isn’t for you!” (Mareme Mufwoko)

“Write down what you’ve done, not what you have to do!” (Binks Neate-Evans)

“Try to take others with you, rather than challenging in a way which just generates antagonism. I am prepared to say things which make others uncomfortable sometimes, but taking people with you is important.” (Caroline Derbyshire)

“Women can make critical comments about balance to other women. Watch this.” (Caroline Barlow)

“Finding a sustainable balance as a head is a challenge, but burn-out doesn’t serve you or your school. No one is indispensable. Have boundaries – decide what they are for you – and stick to them, We all make different choices. Think what is right for you.” (Mareme Mufwoko)

“Beware of the danger of focussing too much on work ‘because it doesn’t feel like work’ and you’re interested in what you’re doing. Think what you’re modelling to staff, and how you are meeting your personal commitments. And we all need to stop asking women leaders questions we wouldn’t ask men!” (Claire Price)

“Work/life balance is like a fulcrum. You need to decide when it has to move. As a head, you perhaps have more capacity to do this than you would in other roles. Who needs you? What do you need to prioritise?” (Ruth Whymark)

“Watch guilt, and beware perfectionism. Ask what’s at the root of your unease when you are trying to balance different responsibilities. Figure out what works for you, and realise this may change as your life changes. Be kind to yourself.” (Helena Marsh)

“Balance is all about where you are in your life/career, and deciding what you need to focus on now.” (Allana Gay)

“Having family responsibilities isn’t just about having children – think about your partner and wider family, too.” (Helen Keenan)

“Make your partner a real partner, as Sheryl Sandberg says. Know yourself and make sure you’re authentic in your choices.” (Caroline Barlow)

“When parents are challenging, it’s really important to engage in a positive way. Model calmness, reasonableness, politeness – even if you feel parents are responding unfairly. I’d recommend Viv Groskop’s podcast, ‘How to own a room’. ” (Nav Sanghara)

“Don’t feel pressured to teach. It may not be the priority in your current role. Consider what your job really is…” (Christalla Jamil)

“Think about the perspective of the gay head or aspiring head. We have a long way to go in terms of better representation in headship. It can be difficult to be ‘out’ as a head. If things change, and there are more heads who are able to be open about their sexuality, we will have more positive role-models.” (Helen Keenan)

“Not all schools are the same. When you are looking for headship, find the school that works for you, and where you know you can bring what this school needs.” (Mareme Mufwoko and Binks Neate-Evans)

Is headship worth it?

“Yes. It gives you a new perspective. But do use the support available.” (Nav Sanghara)

“Yes. It’s rewarding and fulfilling, but don’t be a martyr!” (Helena Marsh)

“Yes, but if something comes up in your life that matters even more to you, know that you can step back.” (Mareme Mufwoko)

“Yes. Everything you have done throughout your career feeds into that moment when you are in charge of your own school.” (Allana Gay)

“Yes, but networking is key, and do ask for help. Don’t work to the exclusion of all else. Show compassion to yourself.” (Helen Keenan)

“Absolutely, if it’s the job you want and you can be true to who you are. Pupils need leaders to show what can be achieved.” (Caroline Barlow)

“Yes. The opportunity to enable others (who may become leaders themselves) is thrilling. Give people HOPE.” (Binks Neate-Evans)

“Yes. You are never on your own, and you can model what matters most in leadership and bring about positive change.” (Christalla Jamil)

“Heads can enable others to thrive – children and adults – and there is JOY in this!” (Ruth Whymark)

“You will make a difference on a big scale. It’s the best job in the world.” (Caroline Derbyshire)

“Yes – if it’s the right job for you. You aren’t alone. Use the support and the skills of others. Find the joy! Build the resilience to cope with the difficult days and remember what it’s all about.” (Claire Price)

Order the new #WomenEd book, ‘Being 10% Braver’ here. It’s published on December 19th.

If you want to watch the full webinar (an hour and a half) the link to the YouTube recording is here.

Thanks again to all who took part in this brilliant event.

3 thoughts on “The reality of being a woman serving headteacher in the UK

  1. What a lovely article. I too read the book by you Making the Leap and have now completed my first year as a head.
    I love the job, simply.

    Nice article for current and aspiring female heads.


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