Becoming an effective assistant headteacher

The transition from successful middle leader to successful assistant headteacher (AHT) is sometimes harder than it looks. Headteachers and others can help, providing the nature of this transition is understood, including those aspects of it that can contribute to feelings of insecurity and even of incompetence on the part of the new member of the senior team.

Though often overlooked, the emotional aspects of transition are important. Prior to taking up the post, the emotional security of the new AHT has usually, if they have followed a subject leadership route, been supported by:

•their own feelings of mastery of a subject to which they are committed and which they have taught for several years
•the recognition and respect given to them by others in their department on the basis of the daily demonstration of their professionalism and expertise in teaching the subject
•their own achievements in relation to the leadership of the department
•the physical space, or territory, they have been able to occupy. For a core subject, this is often in terms of a suite of rooms.
Upon becoming an AHT, this is swept away because:

•the expectation of competence extends over a much wider range of issues, many of them having little to do with subjects – or even teaching, in a direct sense
•respect and recognition cannot be won on the basis of subject expertise but on satisfying the needs and expectations of others, many of them not directly visible or directly involved, or even inside the school itself
•leadership is often indirect, and dependent on supporting those who lead others
•personal achievements are harder to identify and to attribute – often it is more important to credit others with an achievement which may owe much to the AHT’s own behind-the-scenes activities and overtime
•there is no physical territory – the territory now extends across the whole school and frequently outside it.

If the emotional aspects of transition are overlooked or ignored, this can lead to unnecessary periods of stress, and sometimes considerable distress, on the part of the new AHT, who feels obliged to emerge as a perfectly formed senior team member. Butterflies seem to have managed a complex transition of this kind, but humans sometimes need a bit more consideration and help. Since AHTs are not only human, but also an expensive acquisition, effort in planning for and supporting them in the first year or so of their appointment would seem to be well worth the investment.

A change of perspective
Changes of position within an organisation often require a change of perspective. What you see, and the way you see things, depends on where you stand in relation to what is happening. Although it is of course possible to transcend the limitations of positional perspective, this should not be left to chance during role transitions. It might help many new AHTs if they understood where their role had originated and what it was intended to do.

Fundamental to being able to handle the job properly is an understanding that, keeping things running smoothly on a daily basis despite the constant bumps in the road will constitute up to 90% of daily managerial activity, and the other 10% must involve giving the school a strong directional focus.

An understanding of strategy

Experience shows that top leadership teams with a poor grasp of strategy can lead any organisation to disaster. What matters for an AHT in this respect is two-fold. Firstly, they need to be able to contribute to debates about the strategic priorities of the school during SMT meetings and other meetings of strategic importance. Secondly, they need to be able to implement the strategic priorities in ways that enable them to guide work in the areas of activity for which they are responsible. If they are simply doing ‘jobs’ without any sense of the required directional steer, they are not carrying out the role as it was intended to be, that of strategic integrator. Without people who can translate and integrate vision and strategy behaviourally, both may remain little more than fantasies, the reality being that the school is simply being managed on a day-by-day basis but it is not developing and facing up to its challenges.

Making a contribution to SMT strategic discussions means being able to self-start on information-gathering. This goes far beyond the immediate concerns of the school. For example, it means knowing about the political debates within and beyond the agenda of the governing party; knowing about the state of the economy and how this affects the locality; understanding societal changes; changes in technology; changes in the law and finally, how each of these may affect the direction and daily work of the school. In simple terms, the AHT needs to be an educated citizen, alert to what is going on and eager to debate these issues with fellow professionals. It means recognising that the SMT is a significant element in the intellectual leadership of the school.

To do less is to reduce the role simply to a set of reactive and mechanistic tasks, which are inadequate for a professionally staffed organisation operating in an increasingly complex environment. This may seem self-evident, but experience shows that many SMTs become excessively preoccupied with the minutiae of managing the school and, in effect, have their noses down hoovering the ground when they should be looking upwards and outwards at the task environment and relating this to the necessary direction of travel.

Clarity of intent
Putting strategy into effect on a daily basis means being clear about what Hamel and Prahalad (1989) refer to as ‘strategic intents’. It is about being clear about a narrow set of intentions that will steer the school to where it wants to be, provide a sense of discovery of new territory and motivate staff by encouraging them to commit to what they perceive as valuable. Clarity about these means that the AHT can recognise, for example, when an idea put forward by others should be accepted, encouraged and resourced because it fits in with where the school is going, when it needs shaping and finally, when it should be discouraged because it will take the school in quite a different direction.

The SI concept also allows prioritisation of tasks, another difficulty for an AHT lacking strategic awareness, because without it all jobs seem to be of equal importance. Strategic, directional jobs are the most important, though this does not mean that they are necessarily the most immediately urgent or that they need to take up much time. They can for example, be enacted through a snatched conversation, a progress chase or a phone call, just as much as in a lengthy meeting or position paper. What matters is whether these behaviours play a role in moving the school forward towards the goals that have been set for the future.

Problem-solving is an essential ability for AHTs and it is not easily taught. The difference between an expert manager and a novice manager is that the former has encountered a far more extensive range of problems than the latter and usually has a richer repertoire of strategies for dealing with them. It is important for the newly appointed AHT to be able to draw upon the experience of more expert managers in order to fatten up their problem-solution portfolio as quickly as possible. However, this needs to be against a background of understanding that management decisions are seldom made with all the information necessary to make the best possible decision. In addition, context and contingency are crucial; there are no how-to-do-it manuals that will tell you exactly what to do regardless of context and contingency.

For this reason, managers must be reflective and reflexive; a reasonable injunction is, ‘Do your best with what you know, look for evidence of success or shortcoming or failure, and think how you would do it better next time.’

Training during transition
Perfection is elusive in managerial work. This is particularly true in education because, unlike medicine, where one starts out as a generalist and becomes a specialist, education works the other way around. As one becomes more senior, there are more and more general tasks which one does not, at first, know much about. While this is not unique to education – engineering specialists often find difficulty in adapting to management and leadership roles if they have progressed through a specialist route – it does draw attention to the need for adequate training and mentoring during the transition, a period that should relate to the needs of the AHT and not be time-limited nor be confined to one form of support offered by a single individual or course.

The training, or skill-related elements of a programme for an AHT relate to capabilities, which are usually important for the role. These include making meetings more effective as both chair and participant; influencing skills: improving personal organisation and time-management; carrying out performance reviews and writing accurate statements; project planning report writing; speaking in public; handling poor performance and disciplinary problems; and minimising conflict.

There appears to be very little of this kind of general management training for AHTs, although there are many suitable courses leading to qualifications such as those offered by the Chartered Management Institute. These have the additional benefit of being taught either with a group from the same school, a group of schools or with people from outside education, thus giving a wider perspective on the management role.

Coupled with a good grounding in strategic thinking and with the kind of supported problem-solving carried out with regular mentor contacts, such a three-fold programme can have significant benefits for AHTs and for the effectiveness of the SMT as a direction giving group within the staff. By implication, it also helps the headteacher, whose leadership is mediated by – and may indeed be partly shaped by – these key members of staff.


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