The new art of headship in the UK

6 December 2023 | Applicable law: EU | 5 minute read

A new study from RSAcademics about the changing nature of school leadership suggests that Heads needs to be more aware than ever of the legal aspects of their work.

By Russell Speirs, Founder and Chairman of RSAcademics Ltd

Being the Head of a school today is a very different job from what it was twenty or even ten years ago.  While it is still a job which offers many sources of joy and personal fulfilment, there is no doubt that it has become more challenging in recent years.

The challenges that today’s school leaders face are not necessarily new, but many of them have taken on greater significance (e.g. the need to develop a coherent strategy and a financially sustainable business plan), become more complex (e.g. the mental health concerns of children) or now require more urgent attention (e.g. communicating information and reacting to social media).  

These examples of how headship has changed are taken from our latest report, entitled “The New Art of Headship”, based on research conducted in 2023 among more than 150 school leaders and other experts from the UK independent schools sector.

Some of the changes that Heads are experiencing stem from the fact that key stakeholders now have different (for which read “greater”) expectations.  This is particularly true for staff and parents.  

For example, of the 13 areas of a Head’s role that have changed the most, dealing with parents’ complaints and the contentious issues they raise was seen by Heads as the most time consuming.  In particular, the time required to deal with a small, but increasing number of parents who raise formal complaints, including via litigation.  These complaints can have a huge impact on the time and emotional energy of the Head as well as senior staff and governors.  In addition to the normal processes, the Independent Schools Inspectorate (ISI) has given parents an additional route to complain and social media can add further pressure or create what can feel like a parallel process.

As one Head put it: 

“There has been a huge change in parental expectations, which everyone blames on Covid, but I believe has come more to the fore since the 2016 Brexit vote. Parents, on the whole, seem more angry, more inclined to use the complaints process, less inclined to pick up the phone, less inclined to be forgiving and more determined to get value for money.”

Managing staff was seen as the second most time-consuming of the changes in headship.  For example, Heads may need to be more respectful of teachers’ home life or pay more attention to staff wellbeing.  What is for certain is that they will need to be better equipped to deal with the higher incidence of formal claims or grievances:

“Compared with a few years ago, I spend at least twice as much time on contentious staff matters.”

And they will need to be more robust and transparent in terms of the procedures they follow.  Good relationships with staff and upholding values are important, but Heads also need to have robust policies and processes to demonstrate they are making correct and fair decisions. They need to manage process as well as people, recording and formalising more decisions.  In the words of one Head:

“I used to operate on the principle that as I am a person of integrity, have good relationships and treat people fairly, it’s probably enough. Nowadays, it’s much more about providing evidence and having robust processes which will be challenged.”

These days, Heads need to be far more informed, in particular about what has the potential to become contentious and they must have ready access to expertise to guide them through what needs to be done.  With the support of legal professionals and other experts, Heads can then still enjoy the role.  After all, as one Head said, “despite all the difficulties, this still has to be the best job in the world”.

RSAcademics was founded in 2002 to provide schools with advice and support in the area of strategy, marketing and fundraising and has been supporting Heads and advising governors on their appointment since 2009.  

The New Art of Headship is available to download, free of charge from the RSAcademics website through this link or by visiting the “Insights and Ideas” section of the RSAcademics website. 

This document (and any information accessed through links in this document) is provided for information purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. Professional legal advice should be obtained before taking or refraining from any action as a result of the contents of this document.


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