Finding a school to lead, Alex Reppold says, is like meeting the person you want to marry.
“It’s that unknown quantity, isn’t it?” the head of Pocklington Community Junior School, in York, says. “There’s something that works. It feels comfy; it fits around you. It feels like there’s a me-shaped piece missing from the school.”
But the process of moving into headship and finding a suitable school – one with a you-shaped gap – is not an easy one. Different experts tend to have different ideas about when staff are ready for promotion to headship, and how they should subsequently ensure that they find the right school.
Chris James, professor of educational leadership and management at the University of Bath, who has spoken to headteachers and governors across a range of schools, points out that, as with any relationship, you are unlikely to find the right partner unless you know yourself first.
“Be very clear that this is what you want,” he says, of the decision to apply for a first headship. What often happens, he believes, is that good teachers find themselves pushed into leadership – and headship – roles before they are ready.
“People who are eager to help young rising stars – those teachers who are doing a great job – say, ‘You should be going for headship’,” he says. “That’s their own motivation, that they’re trying to put into your mind. Unless the motivation is fully yours, and you want to do it, then don’t.”
This is echoed by James Bowen, director of the NAHT Edge union for middle leaders. “A lot of people get promoted because they’re very good in the classroom,” he says. “Although there’s clearly overlap, they’re quite distinct roles. What makes you a brilliant teacher might not necessarily make you a brilliant leader of a school.
“Ask yourself, ‘Am I ready for the leadership side of it?’ You need to have had some experience leading people, leading change within a school. Did you enjoy it? Were you successful at that?”
‘Like an Arctic explorer’
But Brian Walton, head of Brookside Academy in Somerset, points out that even a deputy headship is not necessarily full preparation for the job. “As deputy head, you can feel like you’re an Arctic explorer, doing exciting things,” he said.
“In the head’s seat, you’re not operating in the same way as a deputy. You’re not going into the classroom and changing things. You’re dealing with building projects and budget cuts and redundancies.”
Often, Mr Bowen says, the point at which you know you are ready for a headship is when you find being a deputy increasingly frustrating. “It’s when you start developing a clear vision for how you want a school to be,” he says.
“In a more junior role, you tend to be working to somebody else’s plan. You start feeling, ‘If I was in charge, I’d do it differently,’ or, ‘I don’t like how this is done.’ Where you’re confident that you could do it better.”
This was the precise turning point for Mr Reppold. “I knew I was ready when I had a vision for what I wanted my school to be,” he says. “And it differed in some ways from where my headteacher was going. There’s only so far you can go in a deputy position.”
And it is this vision, he believes, that helps would-be headteachers to find the school with a hole in their own shape. “I was looking for somewhere where they already believed in a particular way of learning or empowering the children,” Mr Reppold says. “Having a vision so far removed from where a school is already would be disastrous.”
If the match between headteacher and school is the marriage, then there must be a dating process involved beforehand. “You need to consider choosing your governing body and your chair of governors, as well as choosing a physical school,” Mr Bowen says. “Because you’ll be working extremely closely with them.”
Sometimes this can be a clear-cut process: if the governors say that they want the school to become an academy within two years, it is unlikely to be the right school for a headteacher opposed to academies.
But, says Mr Reppold, the process can often be more subtle: “If you say you’re looking for high standards of behaviour, and you see two governors exchange a look, you know that’s something they’re looking for, too.”
Professor James, who recently spoke on headteacher recruitment at the British Educational Leadership, Management and Administration Society conference, talks about the importance of using an interview properly. It is an opportunity to sell yourself, he believes, but also a vital means of scoping out a school.
“There’s an interplay there: you gradually get a sense if you don’t think you’re going to fit there, or if the governors don’t think you’re going to fit,” he says.
“All parties need to be aware of what’s happening. The process is one of being highly, highly reflective and thoughtful.”
Getting hitched to a school
Have a clear understanding of why you want to be a headteacher. Do you want to lead other people? Are you ready to leave the classroom?
Be very clear about what your vision for a school is: what would a school look and feel like, with you as a leader?
Don’t be in a hurry to find a headship, any headship. Try to find one that is the right fit for you.
Talk to the governing body: what is their three-year vision for the school?
Remember that Ofsted reports don’t tell the whole truth: if a school has been rated outstanding but is now in decline, the school is unlikely to advertise this fact.
Look at long-term and short-term budgets.
Look closely at the staffing situation: is the school fully staffed? Are non-specialists teaching specialist subjects?
Find out how stable the school’s governing body is: has there been much turnover recently?
Find out what support you can expect as a new headteacher: will a mentor or coach be provided? Will the outgoing head be on-hand to offer advice?
Don’t confuse window-dressing with the fundamentals: corridor displays can easily be ripped down; staff attitudes and parental expectations are much harder to change.
Source: Chris James, University of Bath, and James Bowen, NAHT Edge