Free article: Headteachers’ appraisal

Published: Monday, 18 April 2016

David Birch outlines best practice in the management of the headteacher appraisal process and offers advice for headteachers on how to make the most of appraisal in their own professional development.


  • The headteacher should be set appropriate but challenging performance targets.
  • The setting of objectives should take account of the progress of particular groups that reflect the school's wider priorities, rather than limiting it to, for example, by key stage.
  • Appraisal objectives cannot encompass everything for which the headteacher is accountable, so setting too many objectives should be avoided to ensure work–life balance.
    Governors need to be well prepared, well informed and appropriately trained for the task.
  • The external adviser can be used to provide objective support, especially with regard to helping governors evaluate school performance and set appropriate objectives.

In my role as a school improvement adviser I have frequently supported and advised governors through the process of a headteacher's appraisal. For the most part, these are well-conducted and positive meetings that recognise the commitment and successes of the headteacher and extend a well-judged challenge to her or him in the next stage of leadership. They are positive because the headteacher and governors share the same aims and work closely together on school self-evaluation and improvement.

The three essential prerequisites of successful headteacher appraisal are that:

  • governors are well prepared, well informed and appropriately trained for the task
  • the headteacher is honest and open in her/his evaluation of performance
  • the external adviser provides objective support, especially with regard to helping governors evaluate school performance and set appropriate objectives.

This needs to take place within a context of mutual trust and respect. The headteacher needs to feel that, despite the challenge inherent in the appraisal process, governors are fundamentally supportive and acting in the best interests of the school. At the same time, governors will want to be assured that the headteacher values their role both in supporting and challenging performance.

Setting performance objectives

Where trust and respect are lacking, governors' desire to hold the headteacher to account may lead to over-ambitious targets and the headteacher may be tempted to play safe. The following elements will aid the setting of appropriate yet challenging performance objectives:

  • A strong joint understanding of pupil performance data, based on a realistic evaluation of likely performance, is important. Ask: 'What is the least we should expect from this cohort of pupils and what is the most?' This will enable success criteria to be agreed which encompass acceptable through to outstanding performance.
  • Success criteria for the headteacher's performance must be set across a range of pupil performance indicators. Rather than limiting the definition of success to narrow outcomes at Key Stage 2 or 4, set objectives to take account of the progress of particular groups, which reflect the school's wider priorities.
  • Take an approach that encourages challenging objectives based on the recognition that a 'near miss' of a demanding objective is worth more than the comfortable meeting of an easy target.
  • There should be an awareness that appraisal objectives cannot encompass everything for which the headteacher is accountable. Avoid the temptation to set too many objectives.
  • A clear commitment in objective setting to the headteacher's personal professional development and concern for their work–life balance is vital in ensuring that the process takes proper account of the need for both challenge and support.

Evaluating the headteacher's performance

The evaluation process should not be limited to the annual appraisal meeting. Interim review meetings during the year provide opportunities for the headteacher to brief governors about progress towards objectives. They also reduce the potential for unwelcome surprises at the annual review.

The appraisal process is strengthened and given greater credibility where members of the review committee are appropriately trained for their role. It is good practice for membership of the committee to be rotated so that it doesn't become the preserve of the same group. It is also normal for the chair of governors not to be on the appraisal committee, in the event that the headteacher appeals against any of the committee's decisions.

Although not statutory, the headteacher's own evaluation of her/his performance is an essential part of an effective review process. This is an opportunity to recognise success and demonstrate the positive outcomes from improvement planning, as reflected in the objectives set in the previous year. At the same time, it is important that missed objectives can be identified and explained (but not explained away: the external adviser has an important role here in providing an objective view, so that honesty about a shortfall in performance is balanced with reasoned explanations of contributory factors).

The headteacher's preparation for the appraisal meeting should be informed by an evaluation of her/his overall achievement in the light of the national headteacher standards, as well as the agreed objectives, so that governors can arrive at a rounded view of performance. A self-review template is included in the toolkit. With regard to the headteacher standards, it is important to adapt them to the needs of each school, as the advice document, National standards of excellence for headteachers, makes clear:

'The headteacher standards should not be used as "cut and paste" objectives. Objectives must be tailored so that they are relevant to the context of the individual school and headteacher. It is good practice for governors to set headteachers specific school-related objectives and targets linked to their school or schools' priorities on an annual basis. Governors should use the standards aspirationally and developmentally.'

The appraisal review committee should consider pupil performance in the context of trends over the last few years. For example, examination results this year may be below target but they may reflect good progress from previous years. The external adviser's understanding of national factors in relation to pupil performance and experience of working with other schools provides governors with an important external perspective on the school's performance.

To maintain objectivity, evaluation of the headteacher's performance should be against agreed success criteria, using both qualitative and quantitative evidence as far as possible. For example, if an objective was set to improve the quality of feedback in lessons, evidence might be drawn from systematic work sampling as well as pupil voice activity. Maintaining objectivity in evaluating the headteacher's performance is particularly important given the appraisal committee's role in recommending pay progression to the governing body.

Further information


Use the following item in the toolkit to put the ideas in the article into practice:

About the author 

David Birch is Associate Director of the National Education Trust and a freelance education consultant. He is a school improvement adviser (and external adviser for headteacher appraisal) working with local authorities in the southwest, and was formerly principal of a secondary school in Devon following a career teaching English in London and Oxfordshire. David can be contacted at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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