Stepping up to co-headship

Written by: Sean Harris | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Two heads are better than one as the saying goes. Sean Harris speaks to co-headteachers Alan Rogers and James Wilson about how a co-leadership approach to headship is working for them...

Back in 2016, research from the National Association of Head Teachers found that 67 per cent of school leaders are aware of senior and experienced staff leaving teaching for reasons other than retirement during the last five years.

Fast forward to 2020 and many anticipate that the impact of Covid-19 and school disruption will further contribute to headteachers and emerging headteachers choosing to leave the profession.

A recent analysis by the Centre for Education and Youth, in partnership with the Headteachers’ Roundtable (Mulcahy, 2020), found that one in four headteachers believe that they are more likely to leave their role in the next year due to the impact the Covid-19 crisis has had on them. Furthermore, 75 per cent of headteachers reported experiencing feelings of burn-out.

So, the question of who would be a headteacher continues to remain relevant.

Collectively, Alan Rogers and James Wilson have more than 30 years of teaching and leadership experience. They have both held positions as pastoral leaders, curriculum leaders and senior leaders.

And like all schools, Duchess’s Community High School in Alnwick, Northumberland, has faced a raft of new challenges this year in the form of virtual learning, remote CPD and deciphering the deluge of often conflicting advice during a global pandemic.

Alan and James are due to officially take on the co-headship of the school in January. Until then they have been working with the out-going headteacher, who is due to retire at the end of this year.

Alan and James were both eager to take on the reins of headship, but chose to revisit their own strengths, skills and experience and proposed a new model to colleagues and governors – one which involved them both being headteacher. Their vision is a simple but effective one: “As co-heads we are working to create an educational centre of excellence based on the principle that effective relationships are the key to positive outcomes.”

I caught up with them both to discuss how co-headship will work in practice and how the school is facing the Covid-19 challenge.

Q: What is motivating you to take headship on as co-operative leaders?

James: “My motivation to be a headteacher has remained, irrespective of the climate. I want to be a leader, whatever the challenge, and serve young people. While we have never faced a climate quite as complex or unusual as the current pandemic, headteachers are constantly responding to challenges.”

Alan: “While the pandemic has presented school leaders with many challenges, it also creates some rare opportunities. It is allowing us to lead children, colleagues and families through a period of intense uncertainty. There is a collegial sense of wanting to pull together and work through this together.”

Q: What have been your key priorities and how will you make these a reality?

Alan: “We want the school to be a place where students want to be and where teachers want to work. James and I, working with colleagues, have developed a strategy toolkit as a living document of the actionable steps we all need to take over the first year. If anybody would like a copy of this document then please get in touch.”

James: “Being two headteachers may help with the day-to-day challenges, but unless we have the support and feedback of our colleagues then we will not have an impact and will probably burn-out pretty quickly. We therefore put together a summary statement of what we think it means to be co-heads to help ensure our teams are able to help us manage priorities.”

Alan: “Another key priority for us in our first 100 days is to be physically present. We are keen to be face-to-face, create drop-in cultures for all staff and be in classrooms. This is more important now than ever before.”

Q: Where do you each get your own support from and what networks exist to support this co-headship?

Alan: “Each other. There will be days when I am sure we frustrate each other, but that is why we are passionate about having robust opportunities to meet and dissect our decisions as heads. It can’t simply be a case of me being a head one day, and James doing the next day and so on.”

James: “Twitter is a valuable source of positivity and practical advice too. I’ve been able to join some great networks and sense-check ideas with other heads in similar contexts via social media (you can find James via @mrjkwilson). The network of support I get from Ambition Institute and the Future Leaders network, including my coach Steve Hawke, has been invaluable too.”

Q: What advice would you give to someone else stepping into their first headship or leadership role?

Alan: “Put opportunities in your diary, especially in your first few months, for reflection and for thinking space. This will give you headspace to consider the successes, learn from your mistakes, and reach out to support networks as needed.”

James: “Absolutely, and don’t be afraid to ‘magpie’ ideas and systems, but please be transparent to others in the profession when you do. I would add that it is important to get to know the school context, even if you have been there for years already. Speak to parents personally, don’t be the headteacher that sits behind an office desk. Be accessible.”

Alan: “Get to know your staff. Even if you have been in the school a fair amount already, they are getting to know you in a new capacity. Build in time to sit with staff, talk with staff and use this to take a temperature check on the culture and how teams are feeling.”

James: “Don’t forget the value of empathy, and challenge others to keep challenging you about this too. Being a teacher is hard work and it is easy to lose sight of this the more out-of-classroom you become as a system leader. Never forget this.”

Q: If you could go back in time and offer your past selves a piece of leadership advice, what would it be?

James: “Don’t let anybody talk you out of applying for a role. Also, think outside of the role too. Just because something exists how you inherited it, it doesn’t mean that you can’t change it. Put your own thumbprint on it.”

Alan: “And remember, it’s not just about you. Leading can be done in the classroom as much as the senior leadership meeting room. Be humble. Don’t be embarrassed to ask big questions. If you see something not working how you or others intended it, speak up about it and be part of the team that finds a solution.”

  • Sean Harris is area director (North) at Ambition Institute and a doctoral researcher at Teesside University, where he is researching the ways in which schools can better tackle in-school disadvantage and poverty proof the school day. You can follow him @SeanHarris_NE. To read his previous best practice articles for SecEd, visit

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