Leadership careers: change is in the air


By Claire Oulton, Head of Leadership Appointments


I talk every day with current and aspiring heads, as well as governing bodies looking for the next head to take their school forward. This is an especially interesting and exciting time to be working in headship appointments as so much change is in the air. In this blog, I have touched very briefly on six notable areas of school leadership and career change on which it is worth reflecting, whether you are a head, an aspiring head or a governor.


  1. The importance of having a professional mentor. Headship has never been more demanding and heads benefit greatly from high-calibre professional support. Where the mentor has some experience of successful leadership outside education as well as within it, I think the benefit is maximised. By tradition, heads have often thought that leading a school is different from any other kind of leadership. Well, that is true, but there is a huge amount to learn from leaders from, for example, industry. It is noteworthy, too, that we have seen how middle management as well as senior management can benefit from leadership lessons from outside the sector.
  2. How long a head should expect to stay in post before looking at new opportunities. There has been a sharp change here in recent years with more heads moving on after 3, 4 or 5 years. Heads often feel deeply torn when the perfect post comes up but a year or two too early. Whereas just a few years ago, it would be rare to move on so soon, now it is not all that unusual.  As it becomes more accepted for heads to move quickly on to pastures new, the planning mechanisms and structures schools use for marketing, strategic development and fundraising need to be adapted so that they are not so heavily reliant on the current head.
  3. International opportunities are extremely inviting now. Many heads now see a period of time overseas as an important part of career development and the high salaries offered are enticing. We now operate in a global community and, just as we expect our pupils to have a global perspective, our heads need one too. Governors need to understand that a period of time spent in a school overseas is usually an asset on a CV: this is a very significant change from a decade ago. As a company working in UK and global headship appointments, our searches are now routinely worldwide.
  4. Cultural fit between a head and school has always been important but never more so than now when times are tough and each school needs to be confident about its niche and market. I know when I am undertaking headship appointments that finding candidates who have the right CV is only one part of the equation: the new head needs to understand the culture and ethos of the school and the fit needs to be spot on for the appointment to work. Where heads have not been successful it is often because not enough focus has been placed by applicants and governors on ensuring that fit and mutual understanding. Our team are trained in making this a priority.
  5. Partnerships between maintained schools and independent schools are beneficial to both sectors and it is of great help when heads sit on each other’s governing bodies – it’s a very quick and easy way to learn an enormous amount about the best of each sector. I strongly recommend sitting on a governing body outside your own sector as an important part of continuing professional development.
  6. At a time when the profile of women is growing daily, it is shocking to see how few women apply for leadership roles in schools and, what is more, that number is diminishing. Heads and governors urgently need to nurture and encourage leadership ambitions in the women on their staff. I would encourage governing bodies to make a discussion about this a priority.




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