Richard Bird, former headteacher and now legal consultant to the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) looks at the part that the old head can play in helping the new head to be successful

There are two reactions to the idea of being a head. One is that the burden is crushing. The other is that ‘It is much better than being a deputy’. People who go for headship actually want to be in the position to take full responsibility. The greater the responsibility the happier they are, as long as the task is do-able and there is freedom to do it. Whatever one’s feeling about grant-maintained status as a way of organising schools, no one who attended a conference of GM heads could have failed to perceive that they were with a group of people who were deeply fulfilled because they had the power to do what they felt was right for the schools that they had happily taken responsibility for. It may well be that it is the increased supervision and imposition of external initiatives on schools that has diminished the flow of headteachers, by taking away the incentive of ultimate responsibility that tempts the right kind of people into the job.

A hard road

It has never been easy to take over a school. HG Wells in his biography of Sanderson, the pioneering head of Oundle School put it this way: No man becomes headmaster of an established school without facing many difficulties. If he is promoted from amongst the staff of his predecessor old disputes and rivalries are apt to take on an exaggerated importance and if he comes in from outside he finds a staff disposed to a meticulous defence of established usage. (Wells, 1927) In their book on the first years of headship, Weindling and Earley (1987) showed us that in these respects at least, little changes. Schools, intense, self-absorbed communities as they are, multiply the effects of a change in leadership. It is the final task of the departing head to create a partnership with the in-coming head to minimise them, while leaving the new head free to develop the school to meet new challenges. This does not just mean refraining from promoting old faithfuls to their level of incompetence through misplaced loyalty. There the grim motto should be: ‘I will get rid of her before I go. It wouldn’t be fair to leave her for anyone else to deal with.’ But it needs to be more positive than that.


However willing they may be, though, the two people who have to make a transfer partnership real face significant difficulties. There are circumstances where it is quite impossible: where there is an interregnum, where the head who is leaving is shuffled off the stage by force or where the leaving head has broken down and is in no fit state to discuss the job he has left. But even where circumstances are more favourable there can be obstacles. Time and distance for a start. Two busy people, both finishing off one job, with the outgoing head possibly going to another, may feel there is not enough time to add this to all the other things they still have to do. If the incomer is at one end of the country and his/her new school at the other, then distance may defeat them. Even if these obstacles do not exist, there may be others. These are almost entirely obstacles constructed by the attitudes of the two participants. An outgoing head may simply turn mean: ‘The idiots have appointed an idiot. Well, let them sort it out. I don’t see why I should.’ Or: ‘No one can replace me. What’s the point?’ If the outgoing head is feeling more benign, s/he can still be held back from helping by other attitudes: ‘If she needs advice she isn’t up to the job’ or, with the best of intentions, ‘He needs to be free to make his own judgements. I don’t want to influence him in any way.’ (As if a native-born Australian should not warn a newcomer to the country about ‘that pretty red-backed spider’ in the dunny).

Sharing experience

It is of course important that the outgoing head recognises that the new head will need to make changes but it is idiotic not to share experience. This includes the outgoing head’s experience of the new head’s new colleagues. This is dangerous territory. Teachers may naturally assume that the new head will be prejudiced against them. But this is to assume that the new head will inherit his predecessor’s prejudices, which is unlikely. The knack is to give an opinion but in giving it or receiving it to leave open the possibilities for growth in different circumstances. The people the old head could not use in the old situation may be just the people the new head needs in the new one. But if the outgoing head may be held back by unhelpful attitudes, there are also attitudes that the incomer may bring which will be equally dysfunctional. ‘I must make my own decisions’ is right, but it may block off valuable information about why things are ‘so’. ‘I should be able to stand on my own feet’ is similarly vital but can cut you off from information that might unravel an apparent mess that your predecessor has left behind.

Positive steps

So what should the leaving head do? The most important thing is to set the tone. It should be positive, trying to create an atmosphere in which the school is ready for change, and making sure that the school does know itself. Mention of the new head by the way in briefings gives staff the sense, after the initial shock, that the transfer is going to be smooth and positive. And there should not be planning blight while everyone waits for the new headteacher. If the leadership team can sell the new headteacher on developments that were in the pipeline there is no reason why they have to be postponed for a year simply to await formal official approval from the new head in post. An essential part of the handover will be to make the leadership team available to the new head so they can plan the future together and the staff know they are doing it.

Information and knowledge

Too often, when there are no obvious problems, the departing head thinks that a mere exchange of information about timetable and results and the school day is sufficient cooperation. It actually needs to be much more. This takes time. A minimum of two full days are needed just for the two heads. More is needed for the new head to meet other key staff. The most important thing is to transmit knowledge. How that knowledge is used is up to the new head but without it, time will be wasted as the school goes up blind alleys or waits until the new head is up to speed. This is not the information contained in a self evaluation form or an Ofsted report. It is the knowledge that can only be gathered from the person who has done the top job. There is the environment that the new head is walking into. There are the threats that a head may see but not talk about in case talking about them makes it come true: financial worries, falling rolls, competition, recruitment. It is people: people you can trust; people you can’t trust: including your SIP. It is ‘how things are really done’ in this LA. It is what sort of ‘dowry’, if any, you can expect for the school. It is how the LA sees the school and how it treats it.

Testing information

Then there is the personality of the school. All those things that the governors have, hopefully, been educated in:

  • the myths (including the role the new head is expected to fill in them)
  • the purpose of the school (what governors and staff and parents really expect it to produce)
  • the beliefs that people actually live by (as distinct from the public statements)
  • the micro-politics of the school
  • the way the school has evolved to be what it is and what vestigial elements of previous mutations still limit what it can do.

The aim of all this is not to incorporate the new head into the vision that the old head had. It is to give the new head information to test. Finally, though, while the old head is doing all this, s/he is displaying his/her own style and slant. The new head will have to make a decision almost from the moment s/he walks into the building as to whether to provide continuity, development or a clean break with the past – ‘You are always sending a message’ (Porter, Lorsch and Noria, 2004). The more accurate the estimate the incomer can make of the old head’s way of working, the more chance there is that the new head make a right judgement. To do all this is a huge professional challenge for the outgoing head, who will also be having to keep the show on the road and ensure that all the more mundane, but still necessary transfer arrangements are made. It is a worthy challenge to complete a headship.

And after?…

And after the exit? Is there anything else? Some heads shake the dust off their shoes and are never seen again. Some hang on and on and are found wandering around the school, embarrassing new staff who don’t know who they are. In one independent school the new head sometimes went into his office to find his predecessor sitting behind the head’s desk. Some just go off and react to inquiries with a brief dismissive answer, as much as to say, ‘Don’t you know the answer to that yet?’ I have tried to argue that outgoing heads owe a responsibility to the service to do what they can to promote continuous, not discontinuous, progress. The natural corollary to that is that the head should continue to be available informally to clarify. It won’t be for long. Changes occur so fast in schools that the old head will be out of touch in six months. And if you retire and live locally? It is a temptation to remember that everything was rosy in the past. It wasn’t. The answer to those who say, ‘There’ve been a lot of changes up at the school’, eagerly fishing for an indiscretion, is probably, ‘There needed to be.’ Headship, says Jane Creasey of the NCSL, ‘is a thrilling, rewarding, stimulating and life-enhancing job.’ Well, it can be. A good transition, with the new and old heads working in partnership, can help to make it so. References Wells, HG (1927) The Story of a Great Schoolmaster, Chatto and Windus, London. Johnson, S (1748) The Vanity of Human Wishes, Dodsley, London. Porter, ME, Lorsch, JW, Nohria, N (2004) ‘Seven Surprises for New CEOs’, Harvard Business Review, October 2004.

Weindling, D and Earley, P (1987) Secondary Headship: The First Years, Windsor, NFER Nelson.