Coaching & Leadership Development
November 30, 2020

Why the NPQH fails to prepare new Heads

Why the NPQH fails to prepare new Heads


Even though it was now many years ago, I remember one of my first school visits as an NPQH Tutor. I had been assigned as a tutor for a Deputy, who was hoping to secure headship within a year of completing her NPQH.


Her school served a neighbourhood that I knew well, bordering as it did the borough of Lambeth where I had been a Head. Her school faced many similar challenges to ones my school had faced:


– Social and economic disadvantage

– Low student achievement

– Lack of resources and funding etc.


In just a year, the expectation of the NPQH was that through study; face to face and online, peer group development days, tutor support and the completion of a  school-based assignment, my aspiring Head would be prepared for Headship.


It took me less than 30 mins sitting with my aspiring Head to ‘assess’ that this would not be the case. She was stressed. She was tired. She had spent an inordinate amount of hours collecting and analysing data for her school based-based assignment. She’d poured over interviews with staff and pupils and extracted what she believed to be key evidence for supporting her school improvement work.


Yet as she sat and talked me through her assignment, there was no light in her eyes, no fire in her belly, no passion for the role she was aspiring to.


Headship requires inner fuel


Now, if there’s one thing I know about Headship, there has to be an inner fuel, an inner fire/desire for the role. The job is hard enough as it is and a person needs more than a dimly lit flame to keep the embers of their vocational  passion burning.


Noticing this, I asked my tutee to put her papers to one side and to simply tell me what was going on for her. At the time, this was not part of the script or indeed my role as an NPQH Tutor (I know there have been some changes since then).


However, in the mid 2000’s the tutor roles  was more that of  mentor and a  guide. We were meant to draw on our Headship experience so that fledgling Heads could learn from us.


With a sigh of relief, papers were put to one side and my tutee began to reveal all. She doubted she could ever be a Head. She’s signed up to the NPQH because she thought she was ready. But all the paperwork and the ticking boxes had left her feeling disillusioned.


There had been some value in attending the peer development days and applying practice in her school, but she felt that something was missing. The programme didn’t feel personalised enough for her. As much as she valued hearing from past, experienced Heads, she felt there wasn’t enough guidance on:


– How she could take on the role of Headship and make it her own.

– Understanding herself and the person she was becoming

– Developing her own levels of resilience and emotional literacy


At that time, I was only just beginning to step my feet into the waters of coaching, but I sensed that this was an individual with whom I could perhaps learn to swim.


Why coaching is a vital support mechanism


So, over the ensuing weeks and months, I stopped giving guidance. I stopped telling her what to do. I stopped using myself as a point of reference and instead, I made the whole focus of our conversations about her and I let her:


– Set the agenda (If I’d let those above me at the time, know that this was what I was doing, I am certain, I would have lost the contract, but I was prepared to take the risk!)

– Decide on the questions curiosities that were arising for her, rather than always expecting her to come up with answers to my ‘expert’ questions

– Share her vulnerabilities and concerns and decipher new meanings and lessons from them

– Delve into her emotions and develop a deeper understanding about their function and how they drove her behaviours.


It wasn’t long before I sensed a change in her demeanour. When I’d visit her school or call, there was no longer that sense of dread, that both she and I had felt in the past. Now our conversations were animated and she seemed to come alive when she became aware of the fact she had become the expert in her own situation and not me.


As she re-gained her confidence, as well as her understanding of the person she was becoming, the light in her eyes returned and so too her belief that she could one day become a Headteacher.


Lessons Learnt


Looking back, I learnt at least three key lessons, through being the NPQH Tutor for this individual and the many more that I ended up coaching over the years.


Lesson # 1: The NPQH is probably best seen as a ‘technical’ qualification that simply says to others that an individual has been on an accredited Headship Training programme. It does not convey the extent to which an individual knows how to lead ‘out of who they are.’


Lesson # 2: Aspiring Heads need to be supported to have conversations that keep them connected to their vocational vitality. Conversations, that are solely focused on data, assessment and justifying outcomes, have the opposite effect and education/schooling become soul less endeavours.


Lesson # 3: Aspiring Heads need spaces where they can be vulnerable, away from their peers and the scrutiny of others. They need  safe spaces to talk about their struggles, fears and doubts. Having such spaces enables them to let go of ego defences and steadily adopt more authentic approaches to their own leadership development.



It is after learning these 3 lessons and working with school leaders across the country for the last few decades, that formed the basis of a new heavily subsidised Early Headship Programme that we will be running in partnership with the NEU from January 2021.


It is aimed to help these leaders to navigate their first few years of their Headship, with a view to helping them build their resilience, strengthen their purpose and hopefully, keep them in the profession for the long-haul.

Consisting of expert 1:1 coaching and 5 leadership development sessions, the programme has been designed to best support emerging leaders and those starting out in Headship as they take this big step up and seek to navigate the challenges that can arise in the early years of Headship.


As part of this, the programme aims to help individuals develop:

– An increased ability to respond with deeper levels of self-awareness and understanding to the demands of the role

– Greater confidence and skill in managing the emotions of self and the emotions of others

– New insights and knowledge for enabling individuals to truly make the role their own

– A deeper understanding of the personal narratives that have shaped their career/leadership pathway

– Clarity on what well-being means for senior leaders and how to both survive and thrive in the role


The programme is open to NEU members or anyone who signs up prior to the programme commencement at a minimal cost to schools.

At a time when school budgets are severely challenged, coupled with the on-going COVID related stresses in school, we really feel that this offer of comprehensive support is very timely and incredibly generous from the NEU, the sort that doesn’t come round everyday


If you’d like to find out more or to apply to be part of the programme, please use the link below…


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