“...Chatteris fell ill during the winter of ’17 and again, for the second time in his life, Chips became acting head of Brookfield...the Governors asked Chips if he would carry on ‘for the duration.’ ” (James Hilton - Good-bye, Mr. Chips)
The governors in Hilton’s story took the option of appointing the most senior colleague to fulfil the acting headship and, in the fictional Brookfield School, Mr Chips rose to the challenge with aplomb. Oh, that real-life was so easy! I believe acting headship is one of the most demanding roles in education. I say that having been an acting headteacher; having been a coach to acting headteachers; and having served as a governor in several schools that have undergone periods of acting headship. It strikes me that there are several key considerations around acting headship which include: who should be selected to fulfil the role, how an acting headteacher can be effectively supported, and how an acting headship is constructively ended.
An external acting headship appointment is logical where the senior team of a school is inexperienced or under-performing. Conversely appointing an internal candidate is a demonstrable vote of confidence in an existing senior leader. It offers an internal candidate a chance to demonstrate their suitability for substantive headship and deploys a colleague versed in the school’s modus operandi, priorities and micro-politics. My preference would be to err towards an internal appointment wherever this is feasible.
How the vacancy arises can matter. In an unexpected crisis the priority may well be a resilient and experienced hand on the tiller. However, where there is scope for an extended formal handover the opportunity to look at headship potential across the whole senior team may become a feasible option. In extended leadership teams the colleague with the greatest leadership potential may, or may not, be the colleague with greatest seniority.
If more than one person can fulfil the post then a formal and open selection process does allow governors to question and scrutinise. I tend to think a process is fairest where all interested in the role are asked to submit a statement of interest and are formally interviewed.
At the outset of an acting headship it is paramount that the governors are crystal clear that their core duty for the vacant substantive headship is to appoint the best candidate via a rigorous recruitment process. This should be welcomed by the acting headteacher as, if successful, they will have succeeded against a nationally advertised field. It will be imperative that those overseeing the recruitment process are assiduous in keeping the acting headteacher updated on timescales.
The working relationship between the chair of governors and the acting headteacher will be pivotal. The chair of governors needs to meet regularly with the acting headteacher.
These meetings need to walk a delicate tightrope. There will be times when constructive challenge is required. There will also be occasions when an ounce of empathetic kindness will be worth far more than a pound of criticism. What is crucial is that the chair avoids trying to micro-manage the acting headteacher. It is also imperative that they permit the acting headteacher to showcase their own modus operandi without too many references to how things were done by the previous incumbent.
Governors should ensure that the acting headteacher has access to expert support. This may include those offering more formalised monitoring being deployed alongside a personal mentor/coach who acts as a confidant and source of counsel. Getting the right expert support in place, even if it costs, is imperative.
What is not needed is governors, or colleagues, offering public comment on the acting headteacher’s chances of securing the substantive post. Cheerleading; trying to be the power broker; or looking to undermine the acting headteacher’s destiny by injudicious comment serve no one well. A school community should be able to be supportive without crossing the line into any of those three roles.
Governors should be particularly empathetic towards the unique stressors of an acting headship. These include, if the acting headteacher is applying for the substantive post, a sense of undertaking a never-ending audition, with every action and decision being scrutinised. Additionally, there is the frustration of “leading on a leash” with some decisions being held in abeyance until the substantive headship is filled - this can, on occasions, be frustratingly disempowering.
There are several ways an acting headship can end. The first is that the acting headteacher is not an applicant for the substantive post deciding either headship is not for them or that they would prefer a headship elsewhere; the second, and in many respects least stressful, is that the acting headteacher is successful in their application; and the third is that the acting headteacher is unsuccessful and another interviewee is appointed.
Where an acting headteacher is interviewed but not appointed to the substantive headship it is vital governors, and close colleagues, recognise that rejection hurts. The next days will be daunting for the acting headteacher having to lead a school that has declined to appoint them. Their morale may be low and their self-confidence brittle. It will be difficult but governors need to publicly show support and compassion at this time. There may well be tensions, even an atmosphere, but avoiding working through this will ultimately help no one.
If unsuccessful the acting headteacher will have to undertake a great deal of thinking. Are they comfortable returning to their previous role - or has acting headship whet their appetite to secure a headship elsewhere? Governors should ensure the acting headteacher has access to a trusted expert with whom they can confidentially review lessons learnt and explore how this will shape their future professional development. If they do decide to use their acting headship experience as a springboard to apply for headships elsewhere the school, and its governors, should recognise that growing aspiring school leaders is a service to the wider educational community of which they should be justifiably proud.
A difficult decision
- Acting headship is one of the most demanding roles we can ask a colleague to fulfil. It can be tempting for schools to see it as an inconvenient interregnum to be survived until a substantive appointment can be secured.
- This though does a disservice to the colleague who has summoned the courage to commit to this exacting role. It is beholden on a school’s decision makers to earnestly reflect on who is best suited to the role; how that colleague can best be supported; and how an acting headship can be brought to a constructive end.
Pete Crockett is a retired special school headteacher who, prior to that worked as a senior leader and SENCO in mainstream education. He has extensive governor experience and currently is a governor of two special schools. He regularly undertakes coaching and consultancy work with school leaders.