As his own departure looms, Dr Chris Ingate has some tips for anyone planning to step down from headship on how to prepare yourself and your school for a new leader.
In 2006, I wrote Should I Stay or Should I Go? Perspectives on middle headship (tinyurl.com/yaud7349) for the now defunct National College for School Leadership (NCSL). The study – its title was inspired by the celebrated 1982 song by The Clash – examined how headship changes over time and how to approach succession planning for oneself and one’s school.
At the time, I had been a headteacher for four years. The turmoil of early headship was over and, while I felt I had acquired a good knowledge and understanding of my school, I was intrigued about what I should be doing and, more importantly, what needed to be done next. Interviewing school leaders at different lengths of experience, I found that there was a clear pattern to headship, but the inevitable shelf life and length of tenure seemed to vary considerably from one person to the next.
So, here I am, in 2023, still planning my exit strategy, which sounds a bit like failure. After 21 years of headship I have decided to call it a day. Sometimes it feels like I have had the most amazing career and it certainly has been a real privilege – and on other occasions it feels like I’m a survivor.
Fundamentally, I wanted to go out still feeling energised and positive about the next stage in my life without becoming jaded or disillusioned. However, this strategy has been three years in the making due to the disruption of Covid, so I needed to ensure it was well-coordinated, transparent and made the minimum impact on my school’s ambition to continually improve and adapt.
Reasons for leaving
In 2003, research by former headteacher Alan Flintham for NCSL looked at why some heads leave the profession prematurely (tinyurl.com/34z2cxk4), identifying three main approaches to departure from school leadership:
- Strider Heads have clear plans and stick to them, including a proactive exit strategy.
- Stroller Heads walk away from headship due to concerns over work–life balance.
- Stumbler Heads have suffered from stress and ill health and simply resign or are forced to leave.
Of course, I wanted to be one of those ’striders’ with definite plans and I also did not want my school to suffer when I left. I also worried about lacking the time to sort out a plan that meant I could end up strolling or stumbling.
Research points to succession planning being a significant Achilles’ heel in education. As Andy Hargreaves and Dean Fink stated in their 2006 study, Sustainable Leadership (tinyurl.com/n9zxjp6t), “One of the most significant events in the life of a school is a change in its leadership. Yet few things in education succeed less than leadership succession.”
An added complication is that demographics point to a mass exodus of experienced school leaders over the next five years, along with a shorter tenure of headship, particularly in more challenging areas. There is also a decreasing leadership pipeline of aspiring deputy heads.
This was brought home to me in a recent National Professional Qualification for Headship (NPQH) face-to-face session that I was facilitating. I asked the group who was considering headship and what might put them off. I was surprised to find that less than half were actively seeking promotion, and their main concern was the high-stakes accountability system we have in the UK. Something has to change in terms of Ofsted.
How did this affect me?
Everyone’s exit strategy will be unique to them. I needed to consider my family and my school. In my annual appraisal, I had discussed my plans with governors and our school improvement partner, but everything was suspended during the Covid-19 pandemic. When things began returning to normal, governors set up a separate succession planning committee who would lead on replacing me. This group were instrumental in working with me initially to design the advert and the information pack. They then oversaw the shortlisting and interview and appointment process, aided by our HR manager.
As the timescale moved towards shortlisting and interviewing, I found myself increasingly marginalised, which did feel odd, but I had to accept that this was inevitable as governors take on their most significant responsibility of replacing the person at the top of the organisation.
The appointment of the new head, an external candidate with two headships under his belt, did create some instability, particularly among the senior leadership team (SLT) as they also felt marginalised on the second day of the interview process. This, too, was unavoidable – in reality, you can’t appoint your own boss.
Things have now resettled and there is a sense of calm and purpose across the school once more. I am very fortunate to have my successor working with me for two days per week throughout the summer term. This is an extraordinary opportunity supported by governors and means I can ensure he is properly briefed and ready to make a flying start in September.
You do start to feel a loss of authority as you begin to let go but I have always thought that my job was to pick up the baton and hand it to the next person in a better position. I will have many warm memories, but it is time to move on and I know that my school is in good hands.
Top 5 tips for successful succession planning:
- Make sure your annual appraisal includes a career discussion along with an opportunity to explore your thoughts on the future.
- Have a plan but don’t share it too much. You may want to get a few more ducks in a row before revealing your intentions more widely.
- Work closely with governors to get the process started – they need help and often feel nervous or out of their depth with the scale of the task.
- Get some good pension advice – ASCL is an excellent starting point.
- Plan for a life beyond headship. It’s a fantastic job but it can be very demanding, as we know, and going from 100mph to 0mph is probably not a good idea.
Dr Chris Ingate
Principal of Birchwood High School, Hertfordshire