Taking on an acting headship in a time of crisis

Written by: Suzanne O’Connell | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

As if becoming an acting headteacher is not enough of a challenge – what is it like when there is a global health pandemic? Suzanne O'Connell speaks to one newly acting headteacher about her experiences and her advice to others who find themselves in an acting role

When Clare Shaw (not her real name) was offered the opportunity to becoming acting headteacher, she had no idea that she was to take up the reins just before a national crisis unfolded. As her current headteacher moved to another position, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to get experience in a school that she knew and loved.

"I had been thinking about headship and felt I was ready but hadn’t started applying," Ms Shaw explained. "When the opportunity arose, I was a little unsure at first but thought it was a fantastic chance to gain experience. I also thought it would be good for the school for someone who knew the staff and the children to step up in the absence of a permanent headteacher."

Adjusting roles

Any internal promotion, even when it is temporary, can cause difficulties with other members of staff. Ms Shaw was lucky in that she had the support of the staff team who encouraged her in her new position. However, she did have some concerns about how her role as deputy headteacher would be filled.

Rather than another member of staff acting to replace her as deputy, it was decided by the governors that the deputy headship responsibilities should be distributed among the senior leadership team. Although there were some benefits to this, Ms Shaw was aware that the situation would need careful handling.

She took the decision to meet with each member of the senior leadership team to clarify roles and responsibilities.

Another concern was the overall lack of experience the team had: "We were a young leadership team and although the enthusiasm and dedication was there, I was conscious that it would have been useful to have had a few more years of experience between us."

Another factor was that a senior member of the administration team was also leaving and finance was one area that Ms Shaw was aware she needed to develop. "Although I have worked with some excellent headteachers, overall I hadn’t been involved with the budget very much," she added.

The first days

Once the previous headteacher had left the building, Ms Shaw found the first big challenge was managing her day. It seemed as though everyone wanted to meet with her and had an issue that they wanted to raise.

"When it came to staff I quickly became aware that we needed to have some form of structure in place for dealing with minor issues and incidents. I seemed to be everyone’s direct line manager! With the senior leadership team we worked out a structure that would mean members of staff knew who to go to and that the first port of call wasn’t necessarily me."

The other issue that emerged very quickly was that parents were also waiting for an opportunity to have an audience with the new head. Although the majority of parents, like the staff, were incredibly supportive, there were some who saw this as a chance to address an old issue that perhaps had not gone their way the first time around.

"This was quite daunting in the early days. I had a lot of appointments materialise with what turned out to be issues that had already been addressed in one form or another. However, I was lucky too that the previous headteacher was accessible to me and could fill me in on the background where necessary."

What did work well was the senior leadership team: "They were very supportive and all of them stepped up. Our relative inexperience did not prove to be an issue and although there was a little anxiety, disappointment and a couple of misunderstandings, these were soon behind us and we were working cooperatively and pooling some good ideas."

The need for support

Ms Shaw was not acting alone, however. The governors had made arrangements for her to receive support two days a week from an experienced headteacher who, for a period of time, could act as her mentor.

"This was so beneficial," she explained. "And something of a luxury for me. I recognise that it’s not always possible for such valuable help to be made available."

Even when the mentor headteacher was not in the school, she was ready togive advice over the phone and reassurance at some difficult times.

"It is a colossal move from managing classes of children to managing adults. Although I had had experience of acting in a headteacher capacity when the previous head was absent, there was always the knowledge that ultimately I was not the one to make important decisions."

Any new headteacher can face the responsibilities with a sense of loneliness and Ms Shaw recognises the value in having someone to hand: "Just having someone to try out my thoughts with before taking decisions further was very reassuring."

Ms Shaw was also lucky in that she found her mentor to be approachable, sympathetic and personable – as well, of course, as having the experience that she lacked.

Managing Covid-19

What nobody had anticipated when Ms Shaw was given this opportunity was that she would face a national emergency while in post.

"A significant amount of my time in this role has been managing the changes to the school during the outbreak," she explained.

"The unprecedented nature of what we were facing made this particularly difficult. There was no expert in this, but people expected me to be one! No sooner would a new announcement be made than I would be asked about the details. I knew no more than anyone else and with directives continually changing it was very difficult to keep-up. The arrangements for vulnerable children, for example, emerged as we went along. My job was to keep calm, be reassuring and stay positive."

Information and the accompanying details often seemed to be sporadic or missing completely. Announcements were often made public before schools even knew what would be happening.

However, Ms Shaw made it a priority that, as far as possible, parents were kept informed: "Our parents have been incredibly supportive at each stage of decision-making. I believe that that’s partly because we have tried so hard to be open and honest with them. There is a real sense of ‘in this together’."

Ms Shaw’s school has relatively few vulnerable pupils and staff were able to come up with a rota to cater for them. Ms Shaw and other members of the leadership team have kept in contact with those electing to stay at home and, in conjunction with social care, are making sure that no-one feels unable to access support if they need it.

And now...

Ms Shaw is still in an acting capacity with the job of recruitment made even more difficult by the need to interview online. When asked if it has been a positive experience, she agreed. "I have learnt such a lot in a short space of time. I can’t thank my mentor enough for this and totally appreciate the support of members of staff, parents and pupils. I’ve had opportunity to attend heads meetings and have been able to build a network of support that I can refer to for help."

This network is something that Ms Shaw is very keen to emphasise for anyone who finds themselves in a similar position. She is also keen to stress the importance of clarifying everyone’s role in the early stages and being prepared to delegate.

"Having someone you can turn to on the phone or in person has been so important for me and I suspect that even when you have years of experience under your belt, you still sometimes need advice. Like with Covid-19, there are always going to be events and problems that you haven’t come across before."

Many people feel that this pause in education is an opportunity to reflect on how schools should be and what their purpose really is. Ms Shaw believes this is vital: "We need to look carefully at how Ofsted works with us, for example. The past few months have really brought to the fore the importance of what we do and the fact that we often feel undermined and hindered by unnecessary hurdles."

Now, Ms Shaw is preparing for the re-opening of school: “Just as we put together a plan, we receive more guidance that changes it.”

For Reception, year 1 and year 6, she doesn’t feel there should be a problem but is not sure where the additional classrooms and teachers will come from when it extends to the other age groups. There are still many dilemmas to work through.

Overall, the experience has firmed up Ms Shaw’s determination to become a headteacher in her own right. "There have been days when I wished it was someone else having to make the decisions, but overall I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity and am looking forward to continuing in a school of my own."

  • Suzanne O’Connell is a freelance education writer and a former primary school headteacher.

* Clare Shaw is a pseudonym. The acting headteacher's name has been changed at her request.

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