Interim headships

Many school boards, and indeed many teachers, students and parents, view interim headships as an inconvenience.  Interim Heads are usually appointed as a last resort when a Principal departs suddenly and unexpectedly, leaving insufficient time for an orderly search and recruitment process to appoint a permanent replacement.  However, Interim Heads may also be appointed if the Board has identified a very strong candidate to be the next Head but that person will not be available for contractual or other reasons for another year or so.

Whatever the situation, school boards will want to reassure the school community that the best aspects of the school experience will continue unabated despite the departure of the previous Principal.  Honest, reassuring, transparent communication from the board to both the school’s internal and external communities is therefore of paramount importance.

Although sudden vacancies are sometimes handled internally by appointing a senior member of staff to serve as Acting Head, this usually results in a highly disruptive domino effect of cascading responsibilities that results in stress and excess workload for the entire management team, and even beyond the management team to include many of the teachers and non-teaching staff.

Leadership transition using an interim headship in schools cartoon, based on work by

Therefore, many boards to bring in an external Interim Principal, often a recently retired Head from another school.  Such appointments have the benefit of bringing in the wisdom and experience gained from performing the “top job” without the flow-on impact of disrupting the established roles of the rest of the management team.  Moreover, unlike an internal acting appointment, an experienced external Interim Head will have no reason to distort decision-making with an eye to future job security or promotion.  This means that the period of an Interim Head should not be “interim” for anyone apart from the Interim Head.

School boards tend to adopt one of two highly contrasting, mutually exclusive approaches to interim headships.  In countries such as the UK and Australia, Interim Heads are usually instructed by their boards not to make any key decisions, but simply maintain operations.  This approach is designed to give the incoming Principal as much freedom and discretion to set direction as possible when they arrive.

In US schools, on the other hand, a very different approach is more common.  Interim Headships are seen as an ideal opportunity to clean up long-standing problems such as staffing or curriculum issues in the school so that the new Head can begin with ‘a clean slate’, making changes without first having to lose political capital by making important but polarising decisions.  In other words, the Interim Head can clean up the school without worrying about eroding their political capital because they know they will be leaving at the end of the year, hopefully with the school in a better position to progress into the future.

On balance, I advocate the second (US) approach as being preferable for most schools.   Of course there are limits to the reforms an Interim Head should make.  It would not be expected that an Interim Head would, for example, move to make a single-sex school co-educational.  Nonetheless, with guidance from a well-informed board that genuinely has the school’s mission, vision and values at the heart of their decision-making, a reforming Interim Head can provide the ideal environment for a new Head to arrive at the school.

-Dr Stephen Codrington

Thank you to for the base graphic that was adapted for use in this article.

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