When is the right time to move on as a headteacher?

Teachers and heads can spend their whole career in a single setting, but Jarlath O’Brien argues that change is integral to professional development – and is better for schools and students

Tes Editorial

I was asked by a fellow headteacher recently: “Do you think you’ll ever take on another headship?” I found the question surprising because I’m 41. If the answer to the question was “no”, it meant I was committing myself to a further 26 years, something that I don’t think would be healthy for my school, or me, for that matter.

Leaders – and teachers generally – tend to be split on the matter of remaining in post for a significant period of time because there are clear pros and cons, whichever choice you end up making.

The upsides

Long-standing leaders can bring stability and continuity to their school. Their continued presence can be a reassurance for staff, students, governors and parents.

Frequent changes of leadership can be disruptive to schools. It unnerves staff and parents, as they can be initially unsure about what stays and, more importantly, who goes. For staff, it can mean changes to working practices with which they have become comfortable.

On top of this, it’s more difficult, more costly and riskier to find a new leader, especially a headteacher, than to retain an existing one.

The downsides

However, there’s a danger of the development of a feeling of ownership about the role or school. Carwarden House is not my school. Research shows that headteachers’ learning and engagement can slow after a time. The moment I begin to feel that the school is mine is the moment that I will write my letter of resignation.

A research study in 2008 from the National College of School Leadership noted that the average tenure of a headteacher was six-to-seven years because they became aware of a “sea change around the four-to-five-year mark with a transition from ‘doing headship’ to ‘being the head’”.

The study found good evidence of a deceleration in leadership development in which “longer-serving heads are more prone to the growth of a plateau effect or ‘sell-by date’, with a decline in effectiveness after seven years”.

When should you move?

Herein lies the tension. Perhaps we get to a point when we become concerned that what works for us in our current school won’t work somewhere else. If we move on, we’ll feel like we’re going to have to start again.

I contrast this with the model adopted in the Armed Forces. You won’t find a lieutenant colonel commanding a battalion for a solid 25 years. The Armed Forces model is predicated on leaders being in place for periods of two or three years, deliberately preventing them from developing a sense of ownership.

Not just leaders

But my argument is not just about leadership. All teachers at all levels need to consider how long they should stay in post.

There is much for teachers to gain by moving schools – many of the reasons are the same as those for school leaders. And if those teachers are seeking promotion, the reasons become even more compelling.

Open discussion

Good governing bodies have open conversations with their headteachers about succession planning and good headteachers have the same discussions with their staff.

As our deputy headteacher says to me: “I do want to be a headteacher. I just want to be headteacher here.” Message received and understood, Alex.

Jarlath O’Brien is director schools at The Eden Academy. His book Better Behaviour - a guide for teachers will be published by Sage in 2018.

This article is an edited version of "When is the right time to move on?" – a feature from TES magazine in September 2016For more information on how to resign as a senior leader, see our guide