The leadership bulge: is it really helping retention?

As school budgets shrink, leadership teams continue to grow. Nick Morrison looks at whether incentivising new recruits with inflated positions is a sustainable model

Nick Morrison

How To Tackle The Leadership Bulge

The days when a school leadership team (SLT) comprised a headteacher and a deputy are long gone; instead we seem to be living in the age of the leadership bulge.

The growth of senior leadership teams has been one of the most notable developments in school staffrooms in recent years. Teams of six are not uncommon in primary schools, while membership of the SLT can reach double figures in secondaries.

A necessary measure in a deepening crisis

While this may seem a top-heavy structure, for many schools it is a logical response to retention and recruitment problems, according to Helena Marsh, executive principal of Linton Village College in Cambridgeshire.

As schools struggle to hold on to staff and attract new recruits, creating new roles or enhancing existing roles with leadership responsibilities becomes a way of encouraging staff to stay and tempting others to join.

“It’s a very challenging time in recruitment so headteachers are having to be creative in designing roles,” Marsh says. “If a school struggles to recruit in a certain shortage area, they might need to enhance that role by making it an assistant headship.”

Although Linton Village College is a relatively small secondary with a six-strong SLT, Marsh knows of some schools that have been forced by recruitment pressure to expand their leadership teams, making the head of maths or science an assistant headteacher, for example.

WATCH: Ben Clemson discusses the leadership bulge and what his school has done to ease the problem. 

Increased competition 

But she points out a number of risks with this approach. Heads of other departments may feel aggrieved if the head of maths is also an assistant head; it may blur the lines of accountability if there is a head of science as well as an assistant headteacher with responsibility for science; it can unbalance the SLT if many of the team have, for example, a maths background, and it can skew the local recruitment scene.

“If everyone is searching for a head of languages and the school down the road has an assistant headship with languages, it can become quite competitive,” she says.

Marsh recently advertised for a head of humanities, billing the role as having the potential to become a senior leadership one. But she was aware of the risk that middle leaders in other disciplines may have felt they were not being given the opportunity to step up and, in the end, the role was given middle leader status.

“You have to be careful that, in your desperation to fill gaps, you don’t put people’s noses out of joint,” she adds.

A rise in assistant headteachers

It is assistant headteachers who are behind the bulge. While the number of full-time headteachers and deputies has remained broadly constant over the past few years – and the number of full-time classroom teachers has actually fallen – there are 25 per cent more assistant headteachers now than there were in 2010.

In 2010, assistant heads made up around five per cent of all teaching staff; in 2017 it was almost seven per cent.

Recruitment and retention issues are not the only factors behind the leadership bulge, according to Rob Ford, principal of Wyedean School in Gloucestershire. A host of additional responsibilities heaped upon schools – from mental health to safeguarding – often require SLT oversight and may lead to the creation of new leadership roles.

But he has also come across a number of schools where membership of the SLT is being used to aid recruitment and retention, appointing assistant headteachers who are also directors of key stages, directors of English or maths and special educational needs and disability coordinators. While these may be relatively common, he also knows of assistant headteachers whose chief responsibility is timetabling and, in one case, a vice-principal without portfolio. “That is quite an expensive troubleshooter,” he says.

“It can get quite bloated” 

While, to some extent, this is understandable, it can also create problems for schools, Ford adds.

“You obviously don’t want to lose your best staff, but it can get quite bloated,” he says.

“If you have 12 or 14 people in your leadership discussions, it becomes more formal, more like a board meeting, and you lose the feeling of close collaboration,” he says. “You could have an inner team, but then you can feel the tension between the inner and the outer circle.”

A top-heavy approach might also lead frontline teachers and middle leaders to question the credibility of the SLT, according to Mark Roberts, assistant principal at a secondary school in south-west England.

“If you’ve been given a leadership position as, say, director of maths, purely to attract you as a head of department, will you have the experience, skills, time or reputational clout to drive whole-school change?” he asks.

On the other side of the coin, members of the SLT who are middle leaders in all but name may be landed with two demanding roles, often for not much more money, he adds.

Too many cooks

Although a larger SLT has benefits for schools in sharing responsibility around, it also creates the risk of having too many competing priorities, according to James Bowen, director of NAHT Edge, the association for middle leaders.

“If you have a range of leaders all trying to implement initiatives at the same time, it feels like initiative overdrive,” he says. “If you put people in leadership positions, they will be keen to lead, but you can’t have everybody leading at the same time.”

He also foresees possible disquiet among other teachers if certain subjects are singled out for promotion on the basis that it is harder to recruit or retain in those disciplines.

“A big worry for staffroom morale is if someone is getting paid more for doing exactly the same role,” he says. “It’s key to have a transparent process so it doesn’t seem like someone has just been given the job, and if someone is expected to do more, then everybody else can clearly see that.”

Alternative incentives 

Budget pressures may mean the leadership bulge is shortlived but, in the meantime, there are alternative ways of recruiting and retaining key staff, Bowen argues. One is to promote a well-being culture with a focus on reducing workload.

“Not everyone wants to be a leader, but every teacher wants to work in an environment where they’re valued and they have a healthy work-life balance,” he says.

“If you have a positive working environment, people are far more likely to stay, and it can also work for recruitment because those schools can get a reputation.”

Professional development does not have to involve promotion but could be as straightforward as giving staff the challenge of teaching a different key stage, he says.

Mark Roberts says he found it useful to join his school’s extended leadership team on an invited but voluntary basis. This gave him the opportunity to work on improvement projects and slowly gain credibility with colleagues.

But he argues that, ultimately, money is not the prime motivator for staff and that feeling appreciated, having a good work-life balance and a reduced workload will do more to promote retention and recruitment than “grabbing a couple of grand a year extra” through joining the senior leadership team.

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