The headteacher is absent: every deputy head’s nightmare or a chance to show your true potential? David Morley looks at what to do when a headteacher is away from school ‘for a short while’ or ‘for the foreseeable future’

Years ago, I went on a course entitled ‘Preparing for Deputy Headship’. The final part of this residential was a keynote speech by the local authority’s director of education. One sentence has always stuck in my mind: ‘If you are not prepared to step into the headteacher’s shoes at a moment’s notice, don’t ever apply for a deputy’s position.’ Little did I know that less than three years later that is exactly what I would have to do.

Reasons for the head’s absence

Most deputies would hope that their move into acting headship would come from their headteacher moving on to another job as this can buy time and help preparation for the new role. However, deputies do need to prepare for all eventualities. Deputies have been thrust into the ‘acting’ position for a variety of reasons:

Acting head 1

While working in an established school, the deputy head became increasingly concerned about the behavior and demeanor of the headteacher. He was unreliable and spontaneous in his decision making. One Sunday, the deputy took a call from the chair of governors to inform him that the headteacher had decided that he was going to have a break and, as deputy, he was going to hold the reins for a while. On his first day he received notification of an inspection! Those weeks became months and eventually terms. Finally, after nearly a year, the headteacher resigned.

Acting head 2

The headteacher was involved in a serious road accident and had to spend several months in intensive care, followed by a prolonged period of recuperation at home. The accident happened in the first few days of the summer term. Just as, among many other things, reports were due out, new class arrangements were due and the school improvement plan needed writing. No emergency plan had ever been discussed and the head was in no position to let the deputy know what plans he already had in place or where to find them.

Considerations prior to acceptance

For most deputies, this will be one of the biggest decisions to take in your career to date. In reality though, you are not in a position to say no! Being a deputy means you should do ‘exactly what it says on the tin’ – you deputize for the head.

You will need to consider how long the role is likely to last, who will support you and what will happen when the acting position comes to an end.

Remember, your employers are likely to need you desperately. It is a great time to negotiate. Under no circumstances accept the role on your current salary.  You should expect to be paid at least at the bottom end of the headteacher salary range for a school of your size. You will need an acting deputy head to work alongside you. Ensure that they are paid at a higher rate too. You cannot expect to be continuing your previous role as a teaching deputy. You need to fully focus on the role as head. Ensure that you either have no teaching commitment or at least a very limited one.

Planning ahead

Even though you are in the dark as to when you will be asked to step in, it is vital that you begin to plan ahead. One of the key aspects for the role of the headteacher is the link to the governing body. Stepping up without a good understanding of governors is going to be very hard. As a deputy you can join the governing body as an ‘associate governor’. By being an associate governor on the full governing body and the committees, you will get to meet the governors and develop relationships with them. You will understand how meetings are planned and organized and see how the paperwork is planned and prepared. You will gain a much deeper and clearer understanding of the fine details of the workings of the school.

You need to get your face known among other local headteachers and senior figures in the local authority. When you become acting head, and especially if your head is otherwise engaged elsewhere, you will need to rely significantly on the contacts you have made. During my two terms as acting head I lost count of the number of times I phoned a local head or the local authority and said: ‘This may sound incredibly stupid, but how do I…?’ You will be amazed at how many people are happy to help if you seek their advice. If you are not in a position to have made such great contacts yourself, speak with your headteacher as part of your planning for absence. Who do they phone for advice?

Short-term planning – up to two weeks’ absence

A short-term absence of the headteacher should not pose any major problems. Close attention will need to be paid to ensure that the staff meeting and SMT schedule are adhered to. It would be worthwhile to use this time to tackle one of the smaller aspects of the school development plan. Close attention needs to be paid to small, but equally important matters, such as:

  • gaining the support and confidence of your staff. Without them being ‘onside’ you have already failed. You will need to drive the team forward together. It is so important for your team to know that they feel valued and that their support of you is vital
  • assembly responsibilities
  • writing the school newsletter (don’t attempt to write this in one go. Use a note book kept in the school office that all staff can add to)
  • checking existing arrangements for lesson observations – staff often work hard to prepare for these and won’t appreciate being told that it is cancelled!

Medium-term planning – an absence of up to one term

Over this sort of timescale it may be difficult to know exactly what tasks to complete, especially if the headteacher is off for an indeterminable length of time. However, too much time can be lost and standards of the school slip dramatically unless the rudder is grasped with both hands and the ship placed back on course. By working together with the headteacher, long in advance of any hypothetical absence, you can begin the training process for the types of tasks to be done.
During this sort of time period it is highly likely that you will need to deal with:

  • governors’ meetings and committee meetings. This is where being an associate member comes in handy. Make sure that the governors take responsibility for sharing the burden with you. Contact them and make them responsible for agendas and minutes
  • liaison group meetings – make sure you attend these. Not only will you learn more about national and local initiatives, you will also build on your contacts. Make sure you have got something to contribute
  • parents’ meetings – remember in your new role you will be the figurehead for the school. You will need to be available and approachable; parents will want to make appointments to see you to deal with their concerns. Keep a log of the meetings you hold – you may need to refer back to them!
  • the school improvement plan – you can’t expect to ignore the SIP for a term.

Schools that stand still for too long eventually start going backwards. Ensure that the staff know that you intend to drive things forward and expect progress to be maintained

  • monitoring and evaluation tasks – for example looking at planning and pupils’ books
  • discipline issues such as exclusions
  • the chair of governors – meet at least weekly to keep him or her updated on developments at the school
  • liaison with the friends of the school
  • assessment arrangements  – check that plans are in place for end-of-key-stage tasks and tests and that you are familiar with your statutory obligations
  • your SEF – put reminders in your diary every three weeks so that you can update its contents
  • targets – meet with staff to discuss progress towards them
  • welfare issues (for example looked-after children) – you should attend meetings relating to them.

Long-term absence – more than a term! During this sort of time period it is highly likely that you will need to deal with:

  • pupil reports
  • performance management and lesson observations
  • pay awards and movement on pay spines
  • review of SIP and creation of new one
  • staff allocation for new school year
  • budget – yes the budget! Perhaps one of the feared and dreaded aspects of acting headship. Again, networking will be your savior here
  • appointments
  • major capital projects such as buildings and IT purchases
  • inspections
  • policy reviews
  • staff appointments
  • SEN statement reviews
  • your RAISE document – familiarize yourself with it
  • data analysis – collate assessment and disseminate this to the relevant bodies; link this to your development plan
  • the school’s maintenance program – check that it is carried out
  • induction of new parents and children
  • open days.

When looking at the SIP don’t be afraid of deferring some of the items on it. As you settle into your new role you will soon realize that by aiming to achieve everything that the author of the SIP planned, you will most likely be spreading yourself too thinly.


Eventually you will begin the process towards either the reintroduction of the headteacher or a new appointment. With a new appointment, you will have to decide whether to apply for the job yourself or support the new head with their induction. Go for it and risk not getting the job or sit back, be the loyal deputy, and watch as your hard work and initiatives get dismantled! Although these are the worse-case scenarios, career changing decisions may be made at this time.

When you look closely at the tasks and responsibilities that lie ahead for the acting head, you will see why a hugely reduced timetable and financial rewards are so important. The key to success comes from gaining the support, knowledge and, importantly, the goodwill of those around you – ignore this key factor and you are on your own. And finally, you never know when you might be required to step up to headship: head and deputy need to work together before the event to develop an emergency action plan well in advance.

David Morley is a deputy head in Milton Keynes