What makes a great deputy head?

Three deputy heads in independent schools answer questions about the essential characteristics needed for the job, effective leadership styles and most rewarding moments


Dr Philip Purvis, deputy head (academic), Croydon High School

Caroline Wood, deputy head (pastoral), Alderley Edge School for Girls

Dr David Neill, deputy head (co-curricular), Canford School

Being part of the senior leadership team in an independent school can be very demanding. What were some of the challenges you faced when you first became a deputy head?

Philip Purvis (PP): I became the deputy head (academic) of Croydon High School (GDST) in September 2019. Notwithstanding having to navigate the thorny issue of centre-assessed grades in my first year – and as contradictory as it might sound – one of the main challenges of becoming a deputy head was learning to cede control. As a head of department, and latterly as a head of sixth form, I was used to having relatively high levels of control over a small team.

It became apparent rather quickly, given the wide-ranging nature of the job, that I would not be able to replicate this approach as a deputy head. Consequently, clear communication and getting ‘buy in’ from those you work alongside is pivotal to the success of any new school leader.

Caroline Wood (CW): When I was appointed deputy head, I found that there were three challenging elements to the role. Firstly, it was an internal appointment with three strong candidates and I felt that I needed to prove myself. I certainly had feelings of imposter syndrome and I had to quickly gain the respect of the staff body on a different level and reposition myself within the school community as a whole.

Secondly, there were some days that I really doubted myself. However, to this day I look back fondly on a fellow member of SLT who told me that I deserved to have been appointed, and that she could see why the governing body had the confidence in me to fulfil the role.

Finally, my greatest challenge to date is balancing being a mother, wife, friend and colleague, along with all the different, demanding elements of a deputy head. At the end of each day, I look back over the day’s events and reassure myself I have done the best I can. And if I haven’t, I will always try and do better.

David Neill (DN): As soon as I was appointed deputy head (co-curricular) I quickly realised that I was required to make numerous important decisions every day. This is a challenge as you are never going to get it right every time or always know the right answer.

The way I decided to approach this was to think carefully about the culture I wanted to promote within the school in terms of co-curricular and distilled it down to a few key guiding principles. All my decisions have flowed logically as a result and my responses are consistent with the overall philosophy and principles I work from.

Pupils at Alderley Edge School for Girls


In many schools the role of deputy head is divided between two or three people. Do you find this beneficial, and are there times when collaboration is needed between the deputy heads?

DN: I am in a school where there are three deputy heads: academic, pastoral and co-curricular. It works extremely well as it affords me enough time to work alongside co-curricular staff, to see the pupils participating and to ensure that everything is happening as it should in terms of the co-curricular life of the school.

I believe that I would struggle to do this if I had a wider remit. I assign time in my calendar to ensure that I have the opportunity to catch all the positive things happening around school and have time for conversations with staff and pupils.

A collegiate ethos is important between deputy heads and at Canford we are fortunate that our offices are next to each other. We regularly catch up and share thoughts and ideas informally, which is very helpful and makes for a proactive and collaborative approach.

More formally, we also schedule a fortnightly meeting with each other to ensure we know exactly which initiatives we are developing and to ensure that we can support each other and openly discuss our opinions on particular matters.

It is important for anyone working in a school with a number of deputy heads to clarify the parameters they see within their role, as some may feel it is simply to promote their particular area while others may take a more ‘holistic’ view of the pupils’ journey through the school.

Having a collegiate relationship with the other deputies is of paramount importance – Dr Philip Purvis, Croydon High School

PP: I am very fortunate to work alongside two talented and established deputy heads: one is responsible for the pastoral needs of our community, while the other oversees the day-to-day management of the sixth form and the operational needs of a growing school.

Simply put, splitting up the responsibilities in this way makes them manageable. It also means that any one issue can be quickly viewed from a variety of different perspectives, which often leads to a better decision-making and strategic process.

As a deputy head, it is very easy to get caught up in the many day-to-day issues that occur in every school. Having a specific focus makes it even more likely that you will get the time and space to think and act strategically. However, anyone who works in a school knows there is not a clear delineation in the panoply of issues that you encounter. Academic concerns usually have a pastoral dimension, and vice versa.

Furthermore, academic matters also have operational ramifications, and the same is true in reverse. Therefore, having a collegiate relationship with the other deputies is of paramount importance.

CW: I am incredibly fortunate to have a deputy head (academic) who I have worked alongside for a number of years. By splitting the list of tasks which are key to our roles as deputy head, it enables the team to better reflect on challenges and share strategies to ensure we are delivering our core values.

Teamwork is essential; it brings the whole child into perspective and enables you to understand the nuances of the situation where a pupil, and often family, need support both pastorally and academically.

Rowing at Canford School


Although one person cannot have all the qualities that are desirable in a deputy head, what characteristics do you believe are essential for the role?

CW: The role requires being on the ground ensuring that key aspects of school life are aligned with the aims of the school. Therefore, having a strong commitment to the vision of the school is essential.

Exceptional communication skills are also important. Whether delivering high-quality assemblies, writing reports for the governing body or external agencies and catching up with family members, our communication ensures we listen and respond to concerns, as well as model our skills to the girls attending the school.

Collaborative leadership is incredibly valuable. Every member of the team, whether they are senior leaders or middle managers, have a role to play, and a deputy head should be working in a way that enables each individual to follow their CPD pathway, developing the team into a strong cohesive unit.

DN: It is important that your philosophy is clear and is a good match for the school – people won’t always agree with your decisions, but it helps when they can see what drives them.

You also need to be receptive to all ideas rather than only championing your own. You don’t need to be the source of the right answer for everything – in fact it’s a positive that you can look to others and are confident enough to give them credit.

PP: Maintaining a firm grasp of the bigger picture, and being able to foresee the wider implications of your strategic decisions is crucial to success in the role.

A pupil at Alderley Edge School for Girls


How important do you believe the relationship to be between the head and deputy head? What signals a good relationship?

PP: The relationship between a head and their deputies must be built on mutual respect and honesty. A deputy head must be able to tread the fine line of being a source of unerring support and the giver of honest counsel when it is appropriate to do so.

Meanwhile, any head must feel able to allow a deputy to spread their wings, taking real responsibility of their area of the school.

My advice to new or aspiring deputy heads is to take time to invest in the relationship with your head; you will both reap the professional and personal rewards as a result.

CW: I have had the pleasure of working with four headmistresses at AESG. My role has been to see their vision and work to help bring it to fruition.

The key point, in my opinion, is that around nine months into their new headship, as a deputy, there is no longer a need to explain how the school ‘usually does it’, and I then work to achieve any adaptations they wish to make to match their unique vision.

Picking up on body language and responses to situations is critical in supporting the head make decisions instantly, and the signal of a good relationship can often be just a raised eyebrow in agreement!

DN: Honest and regular communication is crucial, alongside a shared philosophy and clear, consistent goals that you are trying to achieve collaboratively. It’s also important to be willing to put forward your point of view, even if your head disagrees. It makes for a healthy, positive working relationship.

A teacher and pupil at Croydon High School


Where do the most rewarding moments come from?

DN: The pupils are always the best bit of the job. Interacting with them, hearing their ideas, seeing them flourish – it makes all the hard work worthwhile. I try to see them as much as possible. It’s important to do this as it is very easy to get stuck at a desk ‘solving problems’.

Another positive is implementing changes you think will have a positive effect on pupil outcomes and then seeing them come to fruition and pupils directly benefiting.

CW: It doesn’t matter what role you have in school, if you have made an impact on a child’s learning experience and enabled them to achieve something that they may have thought impossible, our job is done.

Seeing a mischievous year group compete collaboratively in a team-building challenge at the end of term, welcoming back an alumna on Teams to discuss first-year student experiences at university, or a parent stopping you in the supermarket to thank you for that email you sent last week – these are the moments I treasure.

PP: Working with inspiring pupils and dedicated colleagues, and the ability to lead change projects that benefit both constituencies, make being a deputy head one of the best roles in any school.

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