Becoming a head is like racing in the Grand National

A successful jockey picks up some bruises, says James Pope. But put one foot wrong, and you could become unseated
24th September 2019, 5:36pm
James Pope


Becoming a head is like racing in the Grand National
Horse & Jockey, Jumping Over Hurdle

GCSE and A-level results days held a certain significance for me this year. For the first time in my career, I wasn't waiting excitedly to see how students I had taught had performed. And for the first time in nine years as a deputy headteacher and headteacher, I wasn't anxiously analysing a dataset to look for positives. 

While I felt personally liberated, I was also acutely aware of the thousands of headteachers throughout England who would be nervously pacing outside the offices of their data leads, awaiting the signal to pop the champagne cork…or open Tes Jobs on their web browser. 

Sadly, in many cases, this is no exaggeration. It is a consequence of the high-stakes, short-term and quick-fix accountability system that has developed across the system in the past decade.

Over the course of the last year, I've met a large number of headteachers and an equally large number of those who are aspiring to be headteachers. They are a diverse bunch, with different backgrounds, visions and strategies. 

Choosing a horse in the Grand National

However, there is something that they all share. Each and every one of them has a burning desire to improve the quality of education and outcomes for children in their schools. The drivers for this may be subtly different for each person, but that is the common thread. In all cases, there is a career story, individual and unique, despite shared elements of experience and prior success. 

If you become a headteacher in this era, you will be driven and determined. You will care passionately about young people's education, and will have demonstrated a broad and highly valuable skillset.

And yet becoming a headteacher has become akin to selecting a horse in the Grand National. If you pick the right ride, you'll get round the course. It'll be difficult and challenging, and you'll be bruised and battered. But, with a sense of elation and triumph, you'll pick up your carriage clock and enjoy a retirement reclaiming your life, getting fit and spending your time visiting former colleagues who will tell you how well you look. 

If, however, you pick the wrong horse, then there is a huge risk that you will become unseated by any one of the large barriers put in your way. Of course, many of the barriers are familiar and known, but new and unexpected ones are being introduced all the time: imagine Becher's Brook with the added drama of snipers.

It's laughable and deeply sad that we have created a system where those who want to be headteachers might think twice because of the unrelenting challenges. Worse: a system where, once you have decided to go for it, you would be advised to be very careful about which school you pick. Of course this disproportionately disadvantages the very schools who need determined, passionate, caring and highly skilled leaders. 

Shining a light

The solutions to this situation are not difficult to achieve, broadly:

Short term: a recognition that the role of headteacher is increasingly challenging. Headteachers should be provided with access to personal and professional coaching support. They should be able to choose whether or not they want to access this, but they shouldn't have to pay for it from already-stretched school budgets. For some, this is an urgent necessity.

Mid to long term: a comprehensive review of the expectations that we have of school leaders to be all-conquering superheroes with the ability to face down every challenge hurled at them by society, while rapidly improving the quality of education and outcomes. There needs to be a shift away from high-stakes accountability, which drives the whole system to seek immediate solutions, measure success in monthly timeframes and scapegoat the school leader at the first hint that challenges won't be resolved overnight.

Through InspirEDucate and the HeadsUp series of conferences in 2019-20, we hope to shine a light on this issue: 

  • To recognise the personal and professional impact that it is having on too many school leaders within our school system.
  • To highlight the increasing numbers of headteachers who are being removed from the system.
  • To build a supportive network of people and resources that can be available to look after the mental health and wellbeing of headteachers.
  • To build a manifesto which focuses on solutions, redefines the expectations on headteachers, and builds support into their contract of employment.

I'm not advocating lowering expectations or removing accountability altogether. Rather, I'd like a healthy dose of realism. This would not be difficult to achieve. But it would require a consensus from the large range of agents that hold headteachers to account within the system.

James Pope is executive director of Whole Education, a network of over 300 schools working together to offer all children a fully rounded education

Find out more about the InspirEDucate series of conferences here

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