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Acting head – Who to select and how to support them

April 11, 2024, 11:00 GMT+1
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  • When deciding on an acting headship, Pete Crockett looks at the who, how and ending...
Acting head – Who to select and how to support them

I believe that being an acting head is one of the most demanding roles in education. I say that having been an acting head and having been a coach to acting heads. I’ve also 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. These include:

  • who you should select to fulfil the role
  • how you can effective support an acting head
  • how to constructively end an acting headship

Who should be acting head?

An external acting head 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. It also 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 you ask all interested in the acting head role to submit a statement of interest and formally interview them.

How to support an acting head

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 head 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 act head updated on timescales.

Governor role

The working relationship between the chair of governors and the acting head will be pivotal. The chair of governors needs to meet regularly with the acting head.

These meetings need to walk a delicate tightrope. There will be times when you need constructive challenge. 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 head. It is also imperative that they permit the acting head to showcase their own modus operandi without too many references to how the previous incumbent did things.

Governors should ensure that the acting head has access to expert support. This may include deploying those offering more formalised monitoring 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 you don’t need is governors, or colleagues, offering public comment on the acting head’s chances of securing the substantive post.

Cheerleading; trying to be the power broker; or looking to undermine the acting head’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 head 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 decisions delayed until you’ve filled the substantive headship. This can, on occasions, be frustratingly disempowering.

Ending an acting headship

There are several ways an acting headship can end. The first is that the acting head 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 head is successful in their application; and the third is that the acting head is unsuccessful and another interviewee is appointed.

Where an acting head 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 head, 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 head 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 head 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. Prior to that he worked as a senior leader and SENCO in mainstream education. He has extensive governor experience and is currently governor of two special schools. He regularly undertakes coaching and consultancy work with school leaders.