I read with interest this week this report from The Future Leaders Trust which bemoans the paucity of ‘Great school leaders’ willing to take on the top job. I was interested, but I was not in the least surprised.
The report, Heads Up: Meeting the Challenges of Headteacher Recruitment, considers the cost of the missed opportunities for students and communities to flourish in schools led by new heads, driven forward by dynamism, determination and passion. The report also highlights that it is, as ever, the ‘disadvantaged students in areas with relatively few opportunities, in schools that must improve, who are most affected’. What a pity, the report impresses, that the pressures of championing the down-at-heal are so much greater: that the pressures of leading a school in difficulty is too great a ‘career risk’ for many of those who might excel at transforming that school, its pupils and its community.
No, the findings of the report didn’t surprise me in the slightest. What surprised me was that anyone believed this report needed writing: its conclusions are as self-evident as the self-doubt and self-criticism visibly etched on the faces of so many school leaders, especially heads, up and down the country.
One statistic, among the many, pricked my attention: that ‘86.8% of school leaders believed headship was less attractive as a career choice than it was in 2010.’ The figure is shockingly high, but it was something about that date which made me reminisce, invited me to think back to 2010, to turn back the pages of my memory’s teacher-planner to another school, another role, another time.
Back in 2010, I was the leader of a very successful English department which had, over the four years of my stewardship, improved beyond recognition. Our students were among the highest achieving in the country, excelling at GCSE and A Level. Within the school, our department proudly came out on top in whichever measure SLT chose to throw at us: student progress, learning walks, work scrutiny, student voice, teacher retention, number of cakes baked at the weekend to satisfy the weekday cravings…
I enjoyed every minute of it.
The only irksome element of my work back in 2010 was a headteacher, creaking towards retirement, who wanted to keep me in my place until he had clawed his way over the finishing line. This was around the time that GCSE English Language and Maths became the be-all-and-end-all of secondary school accountability, so I could hardly blame him for refusing my many pleas to abandon my post for an SLT position. He sated me with an assortment of ‘associate’ roles and pet projects, but the window of real opportunity was firmly boarded-up. Thankfully for both of us, in the summer of 2010, he finally retired.
That September, 2010, a new headteacher strode in, and it felt like someone opening a window and letting a cooling breeze whoosh through the corridors and the classrooms. His approach to headship seemed so assured and confident in comparison to anything I had known: he announced that he wouldn’t change anything on a whim, but would spend a lot of time listening and reflecting. I met him several times during that period of reflection, and, towards the end of it, he appointed me as assistant headteacher. Of course, the talent he spotted was as much in those who worked with me within the English team as it was in me, and in this one action he released a wave of energy and talent through the department and the school.
Things just kept getting better.
For a while.
Although the school was going from strength to strength, I was spending less time doing what I truly loved – teaching – and more time performing the generic functions of ‘SLT’: endlessly patrolling, cajoling and measuring. I had the enviable position of leading T&L, and I loved the leadership of CPL (or CPD in old money), but I sorely missed the uniqueness of the teacher-student relationship, and the feeling that I was really making individual lives significantly better.
I felt oddly unsatisfied, and I made the easy assumption that I wanted more: responsibility, respect, money.
I applied for a Deputy Headship T&L at another school on a wing and a prayer, and I got it. Ofsted arrived on my fourth day in the job and downgraded the school from Outstanding to Inadequate (Special Measures no less). I was blameless, of course – how much damage could one do in that timescale? Ironically, the root cause was a horrifying decline in GCSE English Language in the summer before my arrival; you’ll remember it as the year that the rug of S&L was swept out from under the final grading, and this was a school where students suffered from endemic literacy-poverty and their written exams simply couldn’t cut the muster.
These were difficult times. I didn’t sleep much, and when I did sleep, it was not restful. There was a point on the commute to school where I turned a corner and the school loomed large on the distant hilltop horizon. Every morning I had to fight a gripping urge, in my hands and in my stomach, to turn the car around, to admit I wasn’t up to it, to go home and apologise to my wife and kids and say I wasn’t as strong as they thought I was. I am proud to say that, every morning, I kept driving forward.
Thankfully, that experience didn’t last forever: I caught a break when a local growing MAT was recruiting and I got an exciting position leading TL&A across a network of schools. Here at last was a position where I could restart the journey towards the inevitable headship.
Don’t misunderstand me, I love my job, but what has become palpably clear in these recent years is that I am a teacher, first and foremost. That’s why I don’t aspire to headship: not because I am frightened by a role ‘with high levels of stress and workload due to school accountability measures or administrative responsibilities’ but because it distances me from what I love doing, and what I do best: teaching, and helping others to teach.
I am full of admiration for headteachers. I just don’t chose to become one.