The Myths And Legends of Headship

1. There is a formula for being a brilliant head teacher

If this was the case then every school would be outstanding. There is no formula, silver bullet, magic potion, or ‘secret’ that applies to being an effective head teacher. Every school is different and every head teacher is different. We constantly tell ourselves that strategies for teaching and learning are not a ‘one size fits all’ and this is certainly the case when it comes to ‘ingredients’ for effective leadership and management. Super heads don’t exist so don’t try to be one. Just be the best head you can be.

2. Head teachers who have been in the same post for over 5 years slip into complacency

This is certainly not the case for hundreds of head teachers. Some heads apply the same bountiful energy and optimism after a decade. It could be that after 5 years a head is more likely to slip into complacency and many do. If you remain in your post for a long period of time then sustaining improvement is extremely challenging and requires masses of motivation but then by the same token, being in the same post in the same school means you have an intimate knowledge and understanding of the school and the community it serves so that you are super-effective.

3. The buck stops with you

Yes… to a point but largely ‘No’. You are the school’s leading professional with considerable responsibility but the responsibility is shared with all staff and in particular your senior leadership team. School is, and always will be, a team effort where collective responsibility reigns supreme. If you carry the weight of every single decision and you see yourself as being the ultimate stakeholder then other key stakeholders can feel alienated from the running of the school. If anything, the governing body carry the can, not you.

4. “There’s no one better to support a headteacher than another headteacher”

Not entirely true. Heads helping heads makes perfect sense but to cut yourself from the vast support network of experienced teachers who aren’t heads is madness. Experience counts and some long-serving members of staff have advice and talent to share in spades.

5. Head teachers are out of touch because they don’t teach

You might not be teaching full-time or even part-time all that much but you are constantly teaching and leading staff and pupils in all that you do and all that you are. High visibility heads are teaching from the front in their actions and behaviours – you are the embodiment of the school’s vision and values so you are teaching the whole school community. You lead many staff meetings and have the potential to inspire and empower staff through constant training, formal and informal: you drip-feed staff CPD in every interaction you have. You also drip-feed quality learning in every assembly you take and every class visit you make. You are actually teaching all day and as much as you would if you were a full-time class teacher – you teach in a different way and remain in the thick of things at all times.

6. Being a head teacher is isolating

It could be if you shut yourself away and hide in your office but the life of a modern head makes this virtually impossible. No one in a school can perform effectively when working in a silo and working at a distance in quarantine from pupils and staff is dangerous and negligent. Headship is all about relationships and partnerships with plenty of support from colleagues and professional networks.

7. You have to have the fear factor

If that’s the case then pupils and staff will be anxious learners. Rather than the fear factor, all heads need to have the ‘respect’ factor and that’s a two-way process. Heads that rule with a rod of iron and no respect are dictators. Heads that run a tight ship underpinned by mutual respect and are absolutely engaged with wellbeing and happiness are winning heads. Head means ‘source’ not ruler – you are the source of happiness in your school.

8. Your job is to inspire everyone

That’s an enormous responsibility. As author and trainer Andy Cope, says, “Your job is not to inspire other people, your job is to be inspired. If you can be inspired and become a people person, then your school magically will be inspired too.

9. Being a head means you are on a hiding to nowhere

The role of a head teacher comes with stresses, strains and huge challenges – no one can pretend otherwise. But the negative pressures that come with being a head do not outweigh the benefits and impact you can have on the lives of so many people. Success is hard won but easily defeated by toxic talk and toxic cultures.

10. Taking up a headship in a challenging school with a poor Ofsted judgement is a career risk

The present school system is misfiring and attitudes need to shift. Some people want blood and want a school transformed overnight. Heads that opt for quick fixes might get accolades but they can often leave school in a worse mess over the long-term. Taking on a school that is failing is ambitious and not for the faint-hearted but by not improving it straight away does not mean your leadership is failing. Real improvement takes time. ‘Surgeons’ might have a dramatic and immediate effect but being an ‘architect head’ is better for pupils and staff. Find out more about the different types of head here.

11. A head must be emotion-free

Healthy and honest human relationships drive a school forward and that means making personal connections with everyone that matters and therefore this means the whole-school community. Emotionless heads tend to distance themselves by body language alone and whilst it is necessary to have boundaries, a moat and portcullis approach don’t work. Boundaries don’t mean untouchable, boundaries mean being professional and crafting relationships based on respect, trust and understanding where the feelings are mutual. Emotion-free gives you all the presence of Darth Vader.

12. There are superheads and you can be one too!

As Vic Goddard says in her book Staying Ahead, “Education has become dominated by the myth of the superhero, in the form of the super-head’. No leader has super-powers and even if they can exhibit what might look like super human strengths, they are unsustainable. There is no ‘complete leader’ who can do it all and if anyone aspires to being the perfect head then they endanger their own wellbeing and the corporate wellbeing of the school.

In 2016, The Centre for High Performance investigated the impact of different types of leaders on performance, beginning with the so-called “superhead” system of executive head teachers. Lead research Alex Hill concluded “when a school emerges from a period with a superhead, you’ve lost three years, sometimes longer, and you’ve spent a load of money you didn’t need to.” This leaves schools further behind and worse off.


John DabelJohn is an ex-primary school teacher and Ofsted inspector who has spent the last 20 years working in the education industry as a teacher, national in-service provider, project manager, writer and editor. John’s specialist area is primary maths but he also loves teaching science and English. John has written a number of educational and children’s books and contributed well over 1,000 articles, features, reviews and curriculum projects to various bodies, magazines, journals and institutions. John is Eteach’s school leadership and Ofsted advice guru – sharing monthly insights on best practice for motivating and enriching a school team, as well as sharing savvy career steps for headteachers and SLT.


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