Making the leap to headship

Written by: DrJill Berry | Published:
Image: iStock

Making the move from deputy headteacher to headteacher can seem a daunting challenge. Experienced head Dr Jill Berry offers her advice on achieving the step up and making a success of your first headship

Of the seven jobs I had across six schools during a 30-year career in education, headship was definitely the most enjoyable and rewarding.

I fully appreciate the demands and challenges of the role – the responsibility and the pressure – however I found far more joys and satisfactions, far more reasons to be cheerful, than the reverse.

I certainly had many more good days than bad ones, and it is a role I would recommend to anyone who believes they have the temperament and the commitment to make a success of it. It will certainly allow you to make a difference to the lives of children, and of adults, on a scale unlike any other you have known.

In many ways, the skills you need for headship are skills you will have been developing throughout your career – as a teacher, a middle leader and as a senior leader. You will continue to hone and strengthen these skills as you grow into the role.

As Robert Quinn (2004) says, we have to “build the bridge as we walk on it”. To some extent, you learn how to be a head from being a head. There are a number of ways in which aspiring heads can prepare themselves, however, and below I offer 10 pieces of advice for those who see that headship may be in their future – perhaps even in 2017?


Do your research carefully, and choose a school which you think is a match for what you have to offer. Look very carefully at the information about the school, the job description and person specification. Does this appear to be a role within a context which aligns with your values, with what motivates and drives you and where you would have the opportunity to be the school leader you one day hope to be?

Tailor your application

Use all you have found out about the school and role to craft your application so that you clearly demonstrate the fit between you and this specific headship position.

Having done your research, make sure you then make full use of it. Consider what this school appears to be looking for in its incoming head. What are the governors’ priorities, and how can you demonstrate that you have what it takes to lead the vision and to build on the school’s current strengths to go on to achieve even greater things in the future?

Context of the school

In your application and at interview, focus on what you will bring to the role and the school, not simply what you yourself will gain.

Inevitably, when considering moving to any role, you will always give thought to the advantages such a move would bring. But when you are applying for headship, consider where the school is, rather than simply where you are.

What do you have to give to headship in this particular context? If this is an internal application and the school already benefits from your skills, how will headship allow you to step up and to make a difference on a broader scale? What can you contribute, and how can you convince the selection panel that your contribution would be highly valuable, enabling the school to develop in the most positive way possible?

Under scrutiny

Be aware that you are being weighed and measured at each stage of the selection process, not simply in the formal interview itself.

At every point, you will be judged, and your suitability for the role discussed, so bear this in mind as you make telephone or email contact, and from the moment you step onto the school premises. Selection for headship can be complex and you are likely to be put through your paces in a number of different ways, but this is a two-way process – you need to be sure that this specific post in this particular school suits you, and that you suit them. If not, then be prepared to withdraw.

Not getting a headship might not be the worst thing that could happen to you. Somehow, securing the wrong headship could be.

Be true to yourself

Be prepared to show what you are made of in a range of tasks. Be true to yourself and do not try to say just what the panel wants to hear. Show your best face, but not a false face.

In order to accurately gauge whether you and the school/role are a successful match, you need to make sure that you are authentic in terms of how you present yourself. Never give the answer you think the selectors may be looking for if it’s not actually what you really think or believe. This is about fit, not about success at any cost.

If you are successful...

If you are successful, recognise that you may go on to experience a mixture of feelings once the news has sunk in – excitement and anticipation, clearly, but also perhaps some trepidation and anxiety. Now you have to prepare to do the job...

You may feel a great sense of elation on being notified that you have been successful. It may be that this is success which follows a number of disappointments, and the exhilaration which comes with it is significant – and understandable and healthy.

Sometimes it is, over time, followed by a sobering realisation that you have taken on a weighty responsibility, and there may be aspects of the role for which you do not yet feel fully prepared. This reaction is also quite normal.

You will not be the fully-formed article from day one of your headship (you may never be the fully-formed article) and you will continue to learn and grow, both during the months leading up to the formal assumption of the role and beyond that.

Lead-in period

Plan your lead-in period carefully so that you make the most of it in order to begin your tenure as head as positively as possible.

Managing positively the months before you officially step into the role is important. You can cover a good deal of ground, begin to know and to be known, if you use this lead-in time well.

You can identify any gaps in your knowledge and understanding of aspects of headship and use your contacts, including in your current school, to begin to strengthen any areas in which you feel you lack confidence (finance? governance? marketing? employment law?).

You can also start to build the most positive relationships with the different groups within your new school community, including the members of your senior team (which, if you are externally appointed, may contain disappointed headship candidates).

Recognise that managing the lead-in period is challenging, however, as you are no doubt still fulfilling a demanding role in your current school, where your loyalties should still lie. Balancing the two is no mean feat, but it can be done.

Inheriting a legacy

Recognise that you will both inherit and inhabit this role. Be mindful of, and respectful of, the legacy you will assume from your predecessor.

No headship is a blank slate, and you will work with all you inherit from the head you succeed. At the same time, you will shape the role and make it your own over time, leaving your own mark on the school.

Every head wants to use their influence to leave the school a better place than they found it; however you cannot simply import your vision and impose it on the school community you are moving to. Appreciate that there may be some challenges and tensions presented by this inheriting/inhabiting dichotomy. Listen, think and learn.

The out-going head

Work to build and maintain the most positive relationship you can with the out-going head, both during the lead-in period and in your early months in post.

It is in everyone’s interests (and certainly the school’s) if the dynamic between you and your predecessor is a positive, mutually respectful and supportive one.

Do all you can to ensure this is the case. It will require some sensitivity – never appear openly critical of what has gone before (even as you plan to change it) and appreciate that the out-going head may be dealing with their own anxiety about leaving headship, or leaving this particular school.

Consider also how you continue to show respect for your predecessor once you have firmly established yourself in the head’s chair. If you experience difficulties with respect to this relationship, have a frank (but calm and professional) discussion with your new governing body about how it can best be managed.

Listen carefully

Be aware that you have a great deal to learn and you will need to listen carefully, think hard, and beware false assumptions and inaccurate preconceptions, especially during the early stages of headship.

You will have your own expectations about how the role of head should be fulfilled (based on your prior experience), and, in particular, of the kind of school leader you are committed to being.

Be aware that the school community you join will also have its own expectations of how headship should be enacted, based in part on how the previous head (and perhaps their predecessors) carried out the role.

You will do the job in a way which is true to you. This, however, requires sensitive navigation and, perhaps, some negotiation. You need to win hearts and minds and to take the school community with you, so be aware that you are not the only one going through a process of socialisation into a new role.

The community you join is also changing and the school will change you in some ways, just as you will change the school.

It is a fascinating challenge and a hugely stimulating, energising and rewarding enterprise. Good luck!

  • DrJill Berry taught for 30 years across a wide range of schools. Since 2010 she has completed a doctorate in education, researching the transition from deputy headship to headship, and written a book based on her research and her experience. You can contact her on Twitter @jillberry102 and blogging via the platform @staffrm:

Further information

Making the Leap: Moving from deputy to head, by Dr Jill Berry, is published by Crown House Publishing (ISBN 9781785831614) and is priced at £12.99.


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