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Navigating the Transition From Deputy Head to Acting Head

Primary School Headteacher
10 Jan 2023
4 min read
Navigating the Transition From Deputy Head to Acting Head

When stepping into the role of Acting Head, there are many different things you can, and should, do to prepare. Here is a run-through of what to watch out for, and advice on how to tackle the various challenges you may face.

Despite being one of the most exciting and rewarding experiences of my career, the transition from an inexperienced Deputy Head to Acting Head was a daunting one. Upon finding myself about to take the leap — with only two and a half years experience as deputy head under my belt — several factors alongside my lack of experience exacerbated the pressure I felt. The three-form entry school was a foundation school, the governors were the employers, and the school was without a School Business Manager. Accompany that with the fact that the assistant head then became my acting deputy — the entire school was now in our hands!

The school is in one of the top 10% most deprived areas in the UK, but despite this it had recently achieved a Good from Ofsted. How did I feel? I felt absolutely terrified, extremely anxious, but also excited.

Fortunately, despite my nerves, I had great support from the parents, teachers and some of the governors. However, that wasn't enough. Upon reflection, here is my advice for anyone why may ever find themselves in my shoes.

Know in advance what is expected of you

Read the National Standards of Excellence for Headteachers (pdf) and be familiar as to what is expected of you. The better you know these standards, the more secure you will be in your new role and the better you will withstand any appraisal.

Timeline everything that must be done

You'll want to update EduBase so that the Department for Education knows who's now in charge. Also ensure that it is up-to-date. Note who the current governors are and when their terms expire. Ensure the governors have signed their declaration forms and have read the current Keeping Children Safe in Education (pdf) document.

This preparation will differ depending on the kind of school you work in. There are a number of important things to consider here. For example:

  • Are all school policies up to date?
  • Do any need to be ratified by the Chair of Governors?
  • Have staff met their targets and are they in need of a pay rise?
  • When is the next Full Governing Board meeting? Ensure that your Acting Headteacher's Report has been emailed to the governors at least two weeks in advance, and subscribe to the Key so you know what needs to be included in the report.

Plan a timeline of when things need to be done throughout the school year. For example, appraisals for staff by half-term, and a year 6 SATs meeting in September.

Cover yourself at all times

If in doubt, always consult your union and/or HR before making any bold decisions — it is extremely important that you cover yourself in case you face any negative reactions.

In line with this, record all communications for evidence if needs be — don't delete emails, even if they don’t seem relevant any longer.

Undertake safer recruitment training to ensure you are as knowledgeable as possible about safe hiring practices. NSPCC provides a safer recruitment online course that can help.

Ensure that any Educational Visit Risk Assessments have been signed off by an Educational Visit Coordinator. I also had to complete extra training in order to do this.

Ensure that your school’s website is compliant with national guidelines: what maintained schools must publish online.

Play an active role in the local community

Win more parents over by writing a weekly newsletter to celebrate what the school is doing. Communication is key and many parents may be feeling anxious that the old head is unavailable and you're now the Acting Head.

Meet with parents regularly for tea/coffee; have an open door forum where they can express their concerns. Make them feel valued and heard, and then address their fears, concerns and any notable issues in the newsletter.

It can be very lonely at the top. Liaise with local good/outstanding school heads in order to share ideas and good practices.

As an Acting Head, you're entitled to support from the local authority. If you are at an academy or foundation school, then the employers need to support you. If they cannot do this sufficiently, they must find you the support you need. Do not underestimate your union and HR. NAHT was wonderful and supportive to me. Remember to network and don't be too proud; ask for support from the right people. Finally, ensure you give yourself some 'me-time', as this job is extremely rewarding, but it will be exhausting at times!

My experience has been invaluable and has absolutely given me the desire to be a Headteacher… one day!

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