What is the difference between a headteacher and a principal?


Is there a difference between a headteacher and a principal? 

These terms have been interchangeable over recent years. Headteacher or headmaster has traditionally been used in UK schools with the term principal being imported from the USA and used more commonly in academies and multi-academy trusts in England.

It is often a question of semantics with both headteacher and principal having exactly the same role and responsibilities. Currently on the TES jobs search there are more ‘headteacher’ roles advertised compared to ‘principals’.

In addition, both principals and headteacher can have vice or assistant positions, such as an ‘assistant headteacher.’ It should be noted that ‘principal teachers’ is a term used in Scotland usually for department heads in a secondary school.

At Edapt we support many headteachers and principals in England and Wales. You can access high-quality employment advice and support for your role by subscribing today.

In this support article, we look at examples of job descriptions and person specifications for the role of headteacher and principal. You might also find it useful to look at our articles on the Headteachers’ Standards and Nolan Principles.

Is there a difference between a headteacher and a principal: headteacher job descriptions

Oliver Goldsmith Primary School in Brent has a job description for a headteacher

It explains that the purpose of the post is to provide professional vision and leadership for the school which secures its success and improvement, ensuring high quality education for all its pupils and improved standards of learning and achievement.

Responsibilities for the management of staff includes:

  • Leading, motivating, supporting, challenging and developing staff at all levels in order to secure and sustain continuous improvement and staff well-being and to be committed to personal continuing professional development
  • Supporting middle and senior leadership of the school to build capacity, recognise existing talents and encourage delegation
  • Challenging underperformance at all levels and putting in place effective procedures to deal with underperforming staff
  • Considering in particular in relation to such allocation of duties how far the duties of the head teacher may be delegated to any deputy head teacher or assistant head teacher

Silver End Primary School in Essex has published a headteacher application pack. It includes a job description and person specification for the role.

It explains that the professional duties of the headteacher shall include: 

  • Formulating the overall aims and objectives of the school and policies for their implementation ƒ
  • Appointment of staff
  • Participating in the selection and appointment of the teaching and non-teaching staff of the school
  • Management of staff
  • Deploying and managing all teaching and non-teaching staff of the school and allocating particular duties to them
  • Ensuring that teachers at the school receive information they need in order to carry out their professional duties effectively
  • Enabling advanced skills teachers to fulfil their outreach duties
  • Reporting to the Chair of Governors annually on the professional development of all teachers at the school
  • Liaison with staff unions and associations
  • Maintaining relationships with organisations representing teachers and other persons on the staff of the school 

Principal: examples of job descriptions and person specifications

White Rose Academies in Leeds has an example of an academy principal job description

It explains that the role is accountable to the executive principal, trust board of directors and the local accountability board

In line with, and building on, the Trust’s vision, the principal will: 

  • Develop the academy as a catalyst for social change, improving the outcomes for students and the community as a whole
  • Be committed to supporting the child through their learning journey from 11-16 and beyond
  • Design and develop an outstanding, innovative and creative curriculum comprised of high quality vocational and academic options and utilising the latest technologies
  • Develop in all students and staff versatile skills and attitudes required for lifelong learning in a rapidly changing world
  • Develop positive external relationships at a local and strategic level, in partnership with the sponsors and others, to promote the continued development of the academy, as a central resource for the community
  • To create and manage a large organisation
  • To recognise and develop sustainable commercial opportunities

In terms of learning and teaching the principal will:

  • Be central to the recruitment strategy for teaching within an expanding academy
  • Design and develop an innovative and motivating curriculum in conjunction with your teachers and Trust peers, matched to students’ needs
  • Drive up expectations and promote an aspirational culture
  • Ensure focussed, data driven improvement
  • Involve students in decision-making processes by developing policies and practices that treat students as partners in the learning process
  • Promote inspirational teaching and learning around all subjects
  • Manage pastoral care, student welfare, child protection and anti-bullying procedures effectively
  • Maintain effective assessment, recording and reporting systems of student progress, and establish challenging targets

Executive principal job description

Ark Isaac Newton Academy has a job description for an executive principal.

The executive principal is responsible for providing an outstanding education for all pupils at the academy. The executive principal will work with the senior team to establish outstanding teaching and learning and an excellent school culture.

Key responsibilities of the role include:

  • Leadership of the academy and its staff in order to achieve extremely high standards of teaching and learning, behaviour and attainment
  • Implementation and coordination of the vision, ethos and strategy for the academy
  • Leadership of effective external relationships, including the local community and other stakeholders
  • Contribution to the overall direction of the Ark network

Leadership behaviours required for the role include:

  • Effective management style that encourages participation, innovation and confidence
  • Ability to lead, coach and motivate staff within a performance management framework, including professional development and effective management of underperformance
  • Ability to develop the leadership skills of others
  • Strong interpersonal, written and oral communication skills
  • Takes personal responsibility for their own actions
  • Resilience and motivation to lead the academy through day-to-day challenges while maintaining a clear strategic vision and direction
  • Genuine passion and a belief in the potential of every student
  • Motivation to continually improve standards and achieve excellence
  • Commitment to the safeguarding and welfare of all pupils

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The information contained within this article is not a complete or final statement of the law.
While Edapt has sought to ensure that the information is accurate and up-to-date, it is not responsible and will not be held liable for any inaccuracies and their consequences, including any loss arising from relying on this information. This article may contain information sourced from public sector bodies and licensed under the Open Government Licence. If you are an Edapt subscriber with an employment-related issue, please contact us and we will be able to refer you to one of our caseworkers.