Change of pace

If you’re lucky, you’ll be in a job you enjoy and perhaps get promoted over time. But what if you don’t want to climb the ladder? Nick Morrison talks to teachers who are happy to downshift
12th December 2008, 12:00am


Change of pace

Volunteering for an effective demotion - or “downshifting” in management speak - may seem strange in these times of credit crunching and economic downturn. But there are those for whom it makes perfect sense. And with the advantage of greater job security than many other professions, teachers are in a better position than most to make this change without fear of laying themselves open to redundancy.

Last year, just under 2 per cent of vacancies among school leadership teams were the result of the incumbent stepping back to a more junior role, according to a survey of more than 2,000 schools. But even if the numbers taking the plunge are small, the desire is widespread.

A survey for the National Association of Head Teachers last year found that more than a third of heads would take a less demanding job if they could afford it, and about a quarter said they would consider changing jobs if conditions remained the same.

Tim Atkinson quit as assistant head at Boston Grammar School in Lincolnshire in July. He left to look after his new son, but says he had considered moving back to classroom teaching even before Charlie was born in January.

“I had reached the stage in my career when I was not much interested in going any further, and had I not been looking after my son I might have taken a downwards step anyway,” he says.

Tim, 43, had been an assistant head for five years but says he missed the daily interaction with the children. He intends to return to school when Charlie goes to nursery in two or three years’ time, but school leadership is not in his plans. He says a head of department or subject leader role would interest him, although he adds: “I’d be equally happy as an ordinary foot soldier.”

He did the sums and worked out the family could survive if wife Sarah, also a teacher, was the sole breadwinner. He also stopped his pension and will set up another if he resumes his teaching career, so the fruits of his 21 years’ service so far will be based on his assistant head salary. Leaving teaching has also given him time to set up his own blog ( and finish a novel, Writing Therapy, to be published this year.

But it still was a far from easy choice. Tim admits it was traumatic and colleagues told him it was professional suicide. Even if their reactions sometimes hid an element of envy, Tim knew it was a risk. “It was a big step and you feel it’s the end of a particular road,” he says.

Mick Brookes, general secretary of the NAHT, says that it is not surprising many school leaders hanker after a return to teaching. “Almost every headteacher came into it because they were successful in the classroom. They might see it as going back to their roots,” he says.

In this respect, teaching resembles many other occupations, says Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology at Lancaster University Management School: the higher up you climb, the further away you get from what drew you into it in the first place.

“We have expectations in our society that people should move upwards, climb greasy poles, but sometimes when you get there you realise you don’t enjoy it, or it’s not what you thought it would be,” Professor Cooper says.

It’s not just school leaders though who are looking to take a step back. Margarita, 26, became a head of department almost by default, but two years into the job she has realised it’s not for her.

Margarita - who asked for her real name to be withheld - applied for the job of head of French at a secondary school in Hertfordshire, but instead was offered the head of languages job. She felt she couldn’t turn it down, but says the workload - she regularly works 15-hour days - is too much. As well as managing staff, Margarita is expected to run two after-school clubs and organise exchange visits, and all for an extra Pounds 3,600 a year.

“I don’t regret doing it because it’s been good experience and I know a lot more about how a school works, but it is too much pressure,” she says. She is now applying for classroom teaching jobs, although she worries that a prospective employer would frown upon such a move.

Among the school managers who volunteered for demotion, according to the survey carried out by Education Data Surveys for the Association of School and College Leaders, were four heads who moved to become deputy heads and five who quit management to go back to classroom teaching. Also leaving leadership roles were 18 deputy heads and nine assistant heads.

Some will be close to retirement. Generous pension rules allow heads to downshift for the last few years of their working lives without losing out financially. Others have family reasons at heart.

But Professor John Howson, of EDS, says anyone who volunteers for a demotion as a temporary step is taking a risk. The crucial factor is convincing an employer that you did it for a good reason.

“If you had a young family and you wanted to manage your work-life balance, then a school would be mad not to consider you, but if you did it because you couldn’t cope then you will have to disguise that,” he says.

Professor Cooper agrees. Taking a backwards step is going to be a tough sell at interview, not least because it goes against expectations of how careers should progress. “If you do it for a couple of years and then say you’ve come back refreshed and ready for management, a lot of people will have trouble with that,” he says.

“People don’t understand a discontinuous career path. They think you couldn’t cope, or you are less committed, even though deep down they might wish they’d done it themselves.”

Overcoming these deep-seated prejudices is one of the hardest obstacles to taking a step back in your career, says Tracey Smith, writer and broadcaster and the creator of National Downshifting Week, which took place in April this year. “We’re driven along to succeed and we do it because everybody else does - it takes a brave person to stand back,” Tracey says. “But downshifting doesn’t have to be about living in a yurt making your own salad: it’s about finding your comfort level.”

But it’s not just school leaders or even heads of department who feel the urge. Susan Williamson switched from being a primary teacher to a teaching assistant in order to bring up her family.

She acknowledges that it took some adjusting to get used to working under someone else’s direction but says the adjustment was more than compensated for by having extra time with her three young children.

“It was nice being able to put everything down at 3.30pm and know it wasn’t my responsibility any more,” says Susan, 45, who now works as a home tutor for the Pilgrim Hospital School in Boston, Lincolnshire.

Ann Franklin left education after completing her NQT year in 1998. “I enjoyed teaching but there was a lot of paperwork and I had quite a stressful first year,” she says. But she missed the children and three years ago went back to school, this time as a teaching assistant at a primary in Wolverhampton.

“I didn’t want to go back into sitting there at 10pm and never having a spare moment,” she says. “I wanted to concentrate on the things I enjoyed.” Ann, 46, admits there were occasional frustrations but she knew her role was to support the teacher.

Although she left the school in July, and has now set up a wool shop, she has no regrets about taking a step back in her career.

“It gave me time to do things I wanted to do. If I took work home it wasn’t because I felt I had to, and that makes a huge difference.” Sometimes, a better life can make it worth the sacrifice.

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