'I thought I was exuding a quiet mastery...but was my brow really that obviously furrowed by the burdens of deputy headship?'

Posted on: 13 Mar 2018
Posted by: Leo Winkley

Leo Winkley, headmaster of St Peter’s School in York, contemplates the move from deputy to headship and offers his advice to any teachers who are considering the change in role.

When I was a deputy head, we hosted some staff from an overseas school: it might have been in Australia or the Middle East – I forget. It was the usual sort of thing where the host school tries to show itself at its hospitable best, laying on lots of activities and meetings, all of which the visiting staff gamely navigate, secretly straining to be off the leash in the local hostelries. Although I can’t remember much about this particular visit, the head of the guest school said something very memorable. When I was introduced to him, he grinned amiably and said: “Ah, just as it should be. A wise head always wears his frown on the forehead of the deputy." Was my brow really that obviously furrowed by the burdens of deputy headship? I thought I was exuding a quiet mastery...

It seems that some deputy heads are thinking twice about going on to headship. Should they fear the step up? I don’t think so. In many ways, being a head is easier. You are pretty much your own boss and you can choose how you spend your time. You have a great team around you. You get to be present when the pupils – who are what we all came into the profession for – are doing their most remarkable things. And you get to bask in their reflected glory. You get the most varied working diet imaginable. Sometimes you feel the weight of responsibility, when you know you have to make a big decision, but this can be enlivening. Somebody has to do it and you are that somebody.

Perhaps that is the biggest change: the decisions really are yours. You have to be okay with making decisions, rather than advising on them. That said, you get plenty of advice (some of it good) and, contrary to popular myth, you don’t often feel lonely. There are times when you know you are in a category of one, but that doesn’t have to mean loneliness. In fact, being alone is something you may sometimes crave.

Think of all the things you leave behind when you move up to headship. No longer do you have to interpret the gnomic pronouncements of the head: you get to make the gnomic pronouncements! Neither do you have to clear up the head’s well-intentioned bungles. No longer do you get the ‘grunt work’: preparing for inspection; drafting policies; sorting the rotas; dealing with uniform. As the head, you can delegate these (and, one hopes, some more inspiring things as well) to your trusty number two – or numbers two, three and four, as is the reality these days with deputies.

Good heads take staff development really seriously. They want their deputies to grow towards headship; as well as the more mundane work, heads must make sure that they give their deputies real opportunities to lead, to make decisions, to do some of the fun stuff. Too much frowning isn’t good for you.

How might you prepare for the move from deputy to head? Observe and reflect. Write down your educational creed. Go on courses. Visit some ‘wise owls’ who’ve been doing it a while and ask them what it’s all about. Check their foreheads for signs of excessive frowning.

Eight years into my first headship, and contemplating the move to a new school in September, photographic evidence shows that the hair has thinned and the lines on the face have got a little more marked. Yes, you do worry - but plenty of the lines are from laughter. And you should see my fresh-faced deputy.

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About Leo Winkley

Leo Winkley is headmaster at Shrewsbury School.