Leap with faith: Moving successfully from deputy headship to headship

Dr. Jill Berry will be speaking alongside a number of experts – including Sir Tim Brighouse and Sir John Dunford – at Forum Education’s National Early Headship Conference on 7th October. In an exclusive blog for Forum Education, Jill explains the significance of the move from Deputy to Headteacher and says that whilst it is a leap, it can be done with thought and planning


Dr. Jill Berry

Leap with faith: Moving successfully from deputy headship to headship

In 2000, after five years as a deputy, I took up my first headship. I had a decade in the job and I loved it.

But my experiences of making that leap stayed with me and prompted me to focus on the process of making that move for my professional doctorate, which I started after leaving headship. My aim was to produce research that could benefit future generations of deputies moving to headship.

My particular area of interest is the change in professional identity involved in the move from deputy to head. I think there is an underlying paradox here: on the one hand, I firmly believe that being a deputy is the best possible preparation for becoming a head. For one thing, it gives you a taste of the role when your head is out of school. If you work for a head who is invested in helping you ready yourself for headship, you can learn a great deal and hone your school-leader skills in the process.

However, being a deputy is quite different from being a head in a number of ways. Deputy headship is more operational and less strategic. It is much more about the management of the detail rather than the leadership of the ‘big picture’. As a deputy I knew the minutiae of how the school operated. As a head I didn’t, and I didn’t need to – I had good people around me who I could trust to do this. However, I was the face of the school, the spokesperson, the figurehead. I was the driver of the vision while the deputies kept the school running smoothly.

So what did I learn from my reading and research into the transition to headship, and how might this be useful to those making the move today?

  • As an incoming head you inherit a good deal from your predecessor(s), and you have to acknowledge this legacy, work with it, build on it. Few strong heads in my experience are content with only ‘inheriting’, however. They also strive to ‘inhabit’ the role, to make it their own and to leave their mark on the role and the school.
  • The lead-in period between being appointed and formally assuming a headship is a crucial time for heads-elect to begin to tune in to the new school, to start to establish positive relationships – both to know and to be known. However, they have to balance this against the demanding deputy role they are fulfilling in their current school, and they have to respect and be sensitive to the position of their predecessor who is still, of course, the head of the school until the very end of this lead-in period.
  • The dynamic between this outgoing head and incoming head is key, and, if it proves to be problematic, then governors should be aware and supportive, because what matters most is the school, its continuity and strength. The school can be damaged if the transition does not proceed smoothly.
  • When a new head joins a school, this is not simply the journey of one person – the school community is affected, too, so the process of socialisation involved is not one-way, it is reciprocal. Incoming heads need to be very aware of context, and they need to reflect, to listen and to learn. They will change the school they join in a number of ways. The school will also change them.
  • There are strategies to help you prepare to make the leap, such as learning from the expertise of those in your current school and from former colleagues, role-models and networks. However, to a certain extent, you can only continue your learning by being in the role – you learn how to be a head from being a head, and that learning may never actually be completed. As Robert Quinn said in 2004, we “build the bridge as we walk on it” – and it is an amazing journey.

Finally, we have to find a way of making the head’s role manageable and sustainable. It is potentially all-consuming and overwhelming, so we have to find some kind of workable balance in our lives, to look after ourselves and not to neglect our personal responsibilities because we are committed to our professional responsibilities.

I like to say that if it isn’t possible to do a dedicated, conscientious job AND to have a life, there is something wrong with the job, not with you.   We need to model the role in such a way that those who follow see its appeal, its satisfactions and its joy, not just its demands and pressures. This may be challenging, but it isn’t impossible.

Dr Jill Berry will present her findings at the 2016 National Early Headship Conference in October, organised by Forum Education and sponsored by Schools Advisory Service. The event also features addresses from Sir Tim Brighouse and Sir John Dunford.

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