Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

Lessons in head starts


About one in four secondary heads move on to a second post. How well do they cope with the transition and what lessons can be learnt from their experiences? Andrew Mackenzie, who moved to his own second headship two years ago, shares the findings of his research into the issue.

Tying into the theme of sustaining leadership at ASCL's annual conference in Birmingham, several speakers addressed the growing shortage of school leaders and the challenge of retaining good leaders.

A natural way for heads to refresh and extend their careers is to move to a second headship. One in four heads chooses to do so.

However, while there is much to prepare aspiring heads, to induct them and support them once in post, there is nothing for those moving into their second headship. Likewise they have received little attention in the research.

In common with anyone changing jobs, experienced headteachers are bound to encounter difficulties and unexpected challenges as they move through the transition process.

Interviews I conducted with seven colleagues with over 100 years' collective headship experience proved illuminating. While their well-developed skills in dealing with people were seen as a vital asset in moving into their new positions, transition was not easy for any of them.

Nearly all of the heads interviewed knew that they were taking on schools which presented a greater challenge, and this was part of the attraction. However, virtually all of them faced unexpected challenges as well.

Although all very experienced, still some found themselves taken in by the 'spin and gloss'. The comments of one head put this very clearly:

"First three months everybody was wonderful, honeymoon period, feeling of elation. Then started to find out the reality: discipline issues, actual ability of pupils, difficult staff. Much had not been shared at interview."

Itchy feet

Colleagues cited numerous reasons for moving to a second school but in each case it incorporated a desire for a new challenge. One commented that he had seen colleagues decline from age 50 onwards and, at the age of 49, did not wish to follow the same pattern.

All shared a sense of having more to give. One comment summarised the views of many: "Felt that my career was not over, had another school in me."

In two cases there was a frustration in the existing school. Another indicated frustration at a local reorganisation.

There was a sense for some colleagues that they had taken their school as far as possible and were unable to settle for life in the comfort zone.

In addition, some heads saw it as "proving that it wasn't a fluke first time around". This offered the opportunity to strip away all contextual factors from their first headship to prove that it was they themselves who had the capabilities and qualities to lead and bring about school improvement. One head summed it up as "arrogance - does what you do really work?"

The challenges of second headship came from many different quarters. For one head it was dealing with the fallout of events such as September 11th. For another it was trying to raise the achievement of a school which was already very good.

A third wanted the challenge of improving a school which had been identified as outstanding by Ofsted, and was seen by those within as very good, but where many things were not actually right.

For others the challenge came from replacing a highly-regarded head or pursuing grant-maintained status.

Think twice

When colleagues were asked to offer advice to others moving into a second headship, there was a generally guarded approach. The response of one colleague was direct:

"Don't do it. Flippant comment? Then be sure of your reasons for doing it; analyse in real depth with advice from your critical friends. Be sensitive to the fact that what you will be going to will have a completely different set of needs and circumstances. Don't import what was successful in your previous school. Work out quickly the key agenda points of staff, governors, pupils and the needs of the school organisation. First steps must be sure footed and well supported. Listen and listen hard."

One commented on the difficulties posed by governors who did not seem to acknowledge the ability of the experienced head they had sought out and chosen to appoint.

Others said to make sure the move was for the right reason: moving towards something because it is appealing and attractive rather than away from something because of dissatisfaction:

"Reason for applying was partly negative, fed up with local situation, foot stamping, letting powers that be know I was not happy. Went for interview, being offered the post was a shock."

Generally, colleagues appeared to have gained from their move into second headship, even if it had not been a comfortable transition. However, this was clearly not the case for one head:

"Problems from the government are the same anywhere. Mistake was thinking I wanted to stay in headship because of vision, strategy, hands on - I needed something different, not necessarily more of the same somewhere else. Probably frustration I feel is because I should have done something else."

The same colleague questioned whether age was a factor and this must be borne in mind; inevitably energy levels five to eight years on may not be as great.

A colleague in his seventh year in his second headship felt that he was no longer at the cutting

edge. Whereas new and current developments had been welcome and a useful vehicle for achieving his aims when in his first post, he now felt he was becoming something of a dinosaur.

All of the headteachers had coped with the challenges they had encountered. However, an underlying issue which was not put into words often within the interviews but was strongly sensed was that of the vulnerability of the headteachers involved as they moved into their new situations. They had no visible or direct support beyond their own experience and capabilities:

"Have access to talk to someone who has gone through it. If I had not known my own worth then I would have struggled - support is important."

Career planning

Experienced headteachers carry a wealth of learning. As the education system prepares to lose many serving leaders over the next few years, it must ensure that those in post are refreshed and retained for as long as possible.

The lack of a career development framework for heads might not cause sleepless nights for policy makers at a time of plenty. However, when numbers are reducing and re-advertisements of posts increasing, this must be a cause for substantial concern.

The consequences of failing to maintain the stimulus and energy of those leading our schools, and providing a career development structure for headteachers, are put succinctly here:

"The peak of the teaching profession could be reached quite young, its possibilities explored for ten years, and the future perceived as a rather boring plateau until retirement. There might be few new vistas to explore unless moving from a small to a larger school or more affluent school." (Draper and McMichael, 1998, p.15)

Not only is there a practical and expedient motivation for ensuring that leaders do not find themselves trapped in post, there is also a wider, moral responsibility for all those within the school and its community.

In order to make the most of a vital and diminishing pool, action is needed to:

  • Develop a systematic approach to the career development of heads alongside a structure that identifies the range of pathways, including second or further headship.

  • Ensure that all stakeholders recognise their responsibility for developing the structures and frameworks required to support the career development of experienced headteachers.

  • Recognise second headship as a career pathway for a significant proportion of leaders.

  • Establish programmes for those considering second headship, and those moving into second headship, to raise their awareness and support them in transition through the provision of mentoring support from someone with experience.

  • Record the actual position concerning the numbers of heads moving into second headships at the local authority and national levels in order to inform planning.

Second headship offers a way forward in meeting the needs for continuing career development for many secondary heads. How well those moving into second headship are supported, and whether a career structure for school leaders is developed, will be decisive in determining the quality of education offered to the young people in our schools in the short and medium term.

The fact that the National College for School Leadership has commissioned research into second headship is to be welcomed. The outcomes will provide the most significant data available as this area is addressed, as it must be, for the benefit of pupils, school communities and school leaders themselves.

ASCL has a leading role to play in taking this work forward.

Andrew Mackenzie is Headteacher Designate of Shuttleworth College, Burnley which opens in September as part of a local reorganisation related to BSF. He moved into his second headship two years ago. This research was done as part of his MBA in Education Leadership.

© 2024 Association of School and College Leaders | Designed with IMPACT