What's it really like?
Helen Reeves is 40 and is the acting head teacher at Queensbridge secondary school, Birmingham, a position she has held since September 2008 after previously being deputy head teacher. She started her career at Queensbridge School as head of performing arts in 1999.
"Being a deputy head is a challenge but the head teacher’s role is all-consuming. During the day while I’m at school I don’t have time to look at my emails as I’m so busy with duties such as responding to issues with pupils’ behaviour, taking assemblies and planning for next year.
I work at the computer for a few hours once the children are tucked up in bed in the evening.
Some head teachers now have almost no experience of teaching, but I believe that time in the classroom is invaluable. You have to know what the teachers are going through, and weigh that up against the needs of pupils. I have personal relationships with most of the pupils because I’ve been at a small school for so long.
The most important and challenging thing is to understand your vision for the school and stick to it. For example, I believe in trying to give pupils who might be expelled another chance. It is a struggle sometimes, but I get so much satisfaction from seeing pupils make it all the way through.
A head teacher must be skilful in getting the best out of everyone, which includes teachers as well as pupils. Also, it may sound obvious but you have to like being around children.
A head teacher is the most senior teacher and leader of a school, responsible for the education of all pupils, management of staff, and for school policy making.
Head teachers are the most senior teachers and leaders of primary and secondary schools, sixth-form colleges and, less commonly, further education colleges.
There are around 18,000 primary school and 3,500 secondary school head teachers in England.
Head teachers are ultimately responsible for the smooth running of a school, the academic achievement of its pupils and the management of its staff.
Although they are usually teachers with many years’ experience, the emphasis of their role is to provide educational vision and direction rather than teaching in classrooms.
Head teachers lead, motivate and manage staff by delegating responsibility, setting expectations and targets and evaluating staff performance against them.
It is a job which requires a strong presence around a school and in some cases the local community, as well as a certain amount of desk work.
All qualified teachers in state schools are paid according to pay scales, updated each September by the government.
As of September 2008, head teachers in state schools are paid between £40,494 and £100,424 per annum (£47,265 and £107,192 in inner London) depending on their experience and the size and policies of the school in which they work.
Due to a shortage of head teachers in the UK, some schools now offer financial incentives associated with the role.
Secondary schools tend to offer higher salaries than primary schools for a number of reasons. These can include risk-factors and the fact that secondary schools tend to be larger than primary schools.
Independent schools operate outside of government pay scales, and head teachers of independent schools can generally expect higher salaries.
Some head teachers have a few teaching responsibilities, but in general the large proportion of their work is the day-to-day management, organisation and administration of the school in order to create a productive, disciplined learning environment. Specifically, the head teacher’s main responsibilities involve:
- Formulating overall aims and objectives for the school and policies for their implementation
- Working with governors and senior colleagues to deploy staff effectively and recruit new staff
- Meeting with other education professionals, and representing the school at conferences and other events outside the school in the local community and nationwide
- Motivating, training and disciplining staff
- Ensuring the motivation of the pupils
- Ensuring an infrastructure is in place in which all members of staff and pupils feel they can register their opinions on serious matters, and have a route via which they can communicate problems to senior members of staff
- Ensuring the good financial management of the school
- Ensuring the school is up-to-date with innovations, from teaching practices to new technologies
- Reporting on the school’s performance to a range of audiences, including governors, the Local Education Authority, the local community, Ofsted and others
- Managing accommodation (e.g. classrooms) effectively to meet the needs of the curriculum and Health & Safety requirements
- Assuming responsibility for other legal matters in the day-to-day running of the school
- Assuming responsibility for pastoral care of pupils where necessary
- Resolving major disciplinary issues with pupils, including working in partnership with the police and social services.
In some schools, head teachers must also establish and maintain links or partnerships with businesses.
Requirements vary between schools, but having QTS (Qualified Teacher Status) is necessary in state schools. This could be gained through a PGCE (Postgraduate Certificate in Education), a GTP (Graduate Training Programme), RTP (Registered Teacher Programme) or Teach First.
In addition, several years’ teaching experience is usually necessary. However, head-teachers are increasingly recent graduates, particularly in primary schools.
The rise of the ‘career head-teacher’ has been hailed as a consequence of fast-track qualification schemes such as Teach First, in which exceptional graduates qualify as teachers very soon after leaving university with a short period of intense training and a longer period of teaching experience.
In order to apply for a first headship in the maintained sector it is mandatory to hold or have a place to study for a NPQH (National Professional Qualification for Headship).
Some head-teachers will be ‘qualified’ in other ways which do not necessarily relate directly to their professional training. For example in their ethical outlook, familiarity with the school or religious persuasion.
Schools vary considerably in size, but even in medium-sized schools head teachers can be responsible for up to 1,000 pupils and hundreds of staff.
The role requires an ability to understand a complex organisation while also being able to resolve sometimes highly emotional and personal conflicts and challenges of staff and pupils.
The skills required are many, and often difficult to specify, from crisis-negotiation to the tackling of mountains of paperwork. However, some of the skills required by most head-teachers include the following:
- Leadership skills, displaying courage and conviction
- Strong interpersonal skills
- Academic ability as well as an ability to understand and communicate with those who struggle in education
- A desire to work with children and/or young adults
- Prioritisation, planning and organisation skills
- Being able to work as part of a team
- An ability to work under pressure and to deadlines
- Effective communication skills
- An ability to devolve responsibilities, delegate tasks and monitor practices to see that they are being carried out
Head teachers will often work far longer hours than the standard school hours, with days starting at 8:30am and finishing at 4:30pm. Teachers typically work for 195 days (or 39 weeks) at school per year, with a long six-week period out of school over the summer. However, most head teachers are expected to do some work during out-of-school periods, with the amount varying school-by-school.
Head teachers must be the face of the school and be prepared to defend the actions of its staff or discipline them where necessary. Negotiating the sometimes conflicting interests of staff, pupils, parents and other stakeholders can be an emotional strain.
Head teachers usually work closely with deputy heads and assistant head teachers. Assistant head teachers are normally in charge of a specific area of the school, such as administration, staff appraisal or discipline, and are not legally allowed to run a school, although deputy heads are.
Out of term, skills and responsibilities will be somewhat different to those assumed during term-time, and working conditions will vary considerably during those weeks of the year in which the school itself is closed.
Few head teachers take on the role early in their career, as being experienced is seen as a major advantage in acquiring a position. Most head teachers have already had extensive experience either as teachers or working in schools and in education in other roles, which could include working as a non-teaching deputy head.
All head teachers are employed by schools. The vast majority are employed within the state sector, with salaries paid by the government.
A minority of head teachers work in the private sector and are employed by individual schools.
Before taking on the role, many head teachers have experience as a head of department or as a deputy or assistant head teacher, although it is not necessary to have held any of these posts.
Some head teachers move to larger schools which brings increasing challenges and, generally, better pay. If they opt to leave teaching, many head teachers remain in the education sector as school inspectors, teacher trainers, advisers and consultants to schools and local or national government.