Richard Bird, former headteacher and now legal consultant to the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), analyses the vital role an outgoing head has to play in the succession process.

‘From now on [choosing my successor] is the most important decision I’ll make. It occupies a considerable amount of thought every day.’

Jack Welch, CEO General Electric, nine years before his retirement. Quoted by Collins and Porras.

It is an oddity of leadership succession in schools that so much is left to chance. The story of General Electric, as in so many firms that have been successful for many years, if not generations, is that Jack Welch himself had been chosen with equal care by his predecessor. In schools, in contrast, the succession depends upon who sees an advert, whether it adequately expresses what is wanted; whether it is convenient for the right person to apply; and whether those appointing truly know what is needed.

There may be some nostalgia for the days when all-powerful chief education officers exercised patronage over headships, slotting this man in here and this one in there (they usually were men, as were the chief education officers themselves). Patronage in education had all the virtues and vices it had in politics in the 18th century. It could produce leaders who could win an empire or, metaphorically speaking, lose America.

Now the succession is neither in the hands of chief education officers, nor in the hands of the existing chief executive of the organisation. In fact, convention often dictates that the existing head should have no part in the succession at all. It is all down to the governors and their advisers. The outcome may be as random as the method and it may or may not have any relation to what the school actually needs.

Some heads, of course, leave hastily under a cloud: deservedly, or trapped by a PANDA report and an LA panic. Some move happily onwards, seeking success on a course of serial headship without a backward glance. One ex-head says, ‘I put my keys on my desk; saluted; and left. I have never been back.’

Surely, though, if not a backward glance, there is a responsibility on a head who is leaving to take a forward one? Those who are left behind may well think so. ‘We lost our head’ was the plaintive explanation given to a visitor who was trying to find an explanation for why a school that had been vibrant and creative on a previous visit was now flat.

Fresh blood?

The dangers facing a school which does not get the succession right are considerable. Left to themselves there is a danger that when the governors and their advisers meet for the first time someone will intone. ‘What this school needs is fresh blood.’ And sometimes it appears that the way this metaphor is interpreted is not so much as an addition to the bloodstock of the school (as if a school was a race horse stud) but an invitation to a weird Dark Age tribal ritual where the tribe is ritually cleansed of the old blood.

Weindling and Earley, in their study of early headship, identify the dismantling of the previous regime as something that appears to be part of taking up headship. ‘Dispersed leadership’ takes on an ironic tone in this situation.

To play with the ‘fresh blood’ metaphor for a moment: transfusions sometimes are rejected. A new head may be culturally discordant with the school. A school that has a practical down-to-earth approach may reject a head full of the latest management jargon. A school with a fine sports tradition may reject an otherwise admirable head who shows contempt for or lack of interest in sport.

The culture of a school is not a veneer. It represents enduring values and the very values that could underpin continuous – as opposed to ‘flash-in-the-pan’ – success. This applies in schools as well as in the businesses that Schein, for example, gives examples from. The failure to appoint heads who in a deep sense ‘fit in’ is one of the main reasons why it is so hard to find schools which have preserved their success over a long period of time.

Avoiding disillusionment

Similarly, a failure of governors to identify the kind of person who can relate to the pecking order of the school staff can produce serious damage. Pivotal staff become disillusioned and leave. Worse, the whole school may become riddled with disaffection and disloyalty. As Ball found in a reorganised school in the 1980s:

‘Policy directives were ignored or subverted and the “old” staff continued with classroom work virtually unchanged since secondary modern days; they were able to deny the head “control of themselves”.’

In another school it was a case of:
‘The old guard form a critical mass. They’re a group of piss-takers who block changes and the head is caught between them.’

As falling rolls lead to new amalgamations and federations we may well see this repeated. Worst of all, perhaps, the real objective needs of the school may be overlooked or ignored by a new head with a portable vision.

Eye to the future

No one is better placed to make sure that the governors attend to the present with an eye to the future than the existing head. And it is a job that needs to be done. Collins and Porras put it this way:

‘Imagine you met a remarkable person who could look at the sun or stars at any time of the day or night and state the exact time or date… This person would be an amazing time-teller… But wouldn’t that person be even more amazing if, instead of telling the time, he or she built a clock that could tell the time forever, even after he was dead and gone… Being a charismatic leader is “time telling”; building a company that can prosper beyond the presence of any single leader and through multiple product cycles is “clock building”’

It is obviously easier for a head who plans his retirement to set about such long-term building; but as the Jack Welch example shows, even a head who is not sure of precisely when the next job is going to come along, can begin the process once they that they are on the last lap. This is the mission, if the outgoing head chooses to accept it and for the school it is crucial. The job is to build the understanding of the governors and staff to cope with a change of leadership; to build capacity; to establish the basis for continuity and to set progress in motion so that there is not a free-wheeling hiatus when leadership changes.

This is not easy, as the present difficulties in the Labour Party and the usual ‘lame-duck’ year at the end of an American president’s period of office suggest. Once people know you are going why should anyone pay any attention to what you suggest? However, the rising sun does not light up the sky until after the appointment. If a head has been respected there is plenty of credit left to draw on.

Building leadership capacity

It is important that the head, particularly if they have been at the school for some time or have made a very large impact in a short one, looks to build the capacity of other leaders in the school. ‘The genius with a thousand helpers’, as Collins describes the charismatic leader, will leave the school completely bereft if other staff are not coached to bring forward ideas. It is the time to say ‘Yes!’ to new ideas, even if they are ones the ‘old’ head has reservations about.

At the same time, though, the school needs to know how it feels about itself and how it would like to feel about itself in the future. This means devoting serious time to the task and involving governors and all staff in the process. Only this way will the person specification for the job describe what this particular school needs and will continuity be preserved in what matters – while everything else changes to meet changing circumstances.

Headship succession does not take place at a natural pause in educational business. There is a need to keep things going. Plans need to be made and actioned even if they are going to take effect after the change of headship. Nothing is worse than for ‘planning blight’ to cloud over the school as everything waits for ‘the new head.’ However, the decisions and the initiatives must come from the rest of the team: not from the outgoing head.

Objectivity about the future

The task is daunting. An outgoing head has to develop sufficient objectivity to conceive of the future of the school without them and to identify what has not been done and ought to have been done, as well as what has been done and ought to be preserved. If it is not the practice already, they must devolve the decision on significant strategic initiatives to the team and leave it to them to sell them to the governors, but do it without implying that they would never have done it themselves.

It requires the skills to educate the school to be explicit about itself and to walk the line between tying the hands of a successor and clarifying core values for continuity. It is a challenge that will test all the skills and wisdom that a head may have accumulated in the course of their career.

And of course, any number of people can destroy everything that the head is trying to do. An over-assertive and opinionated chair of governors, displaying all the arrogance of ignorance and the power that comes from complete certainty that will not be moved by the facts (and they do exist) can trample through the most intelligent scheme for governor awareness training. The ‘old guard’ may see any consultation as a chance to seize power; and the outside adviser, representing the chief education officer, may bring with him a set of county hall folklore beliefs about the school which completely mislead the governors as to what is wanted.

‘Against folly the gods themselves contend in vain,’ the old head will mutter as they see the result, but at least the last challenge of headship will have been taken up. And in most cases the outcome will be positive. The school will go on successfully without them and that will be their lasting achievement.


Ball, S (1987) The Micropolitics of the School, London: Methuen.

Collins, JC (2001) From Good to Great, London: Random House.

Collins, JC and Porras, JI (2000) Built to Last, London: Random House.

Gray, J, Hopkins, D, Reynolds, D, Wilcox, B, Farrell, S & Jesson, D (1999) Improving Schools: Performance and Potential, Buckingham: Open University Press.

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

Schein, E (2004) Organisational Culture and Leadership, San Fransisco: Jossey-Bass.