Leadership - We must rescue the reputation of headship

The role is suffering from a serious image problem that deters good candidates from applying – but all is far from lost
31st October 2014, 12:00am


Leadership - We must rescue the reputation of headship


Headship has an image problem. Once a celebrated and aspirational role, school leadership is now perceived overwhelmingly negatively. As a result, some of the best candidates are not applying for top positions and we may soon have too few applicants to fill the vacancies.

A 2013 survey from the Association of School and College Leaders highlights the extent of the issue. Although almost half of headteachers said they would still recommend the role, two-thirds of deputies and assistant headteachers were less likely to apply for headship than they had been two years previously. The following response was typical: "I could be an excellent headteacher, but I'm staying put at the moment as a deputy. It's much safer."

We need to turn this around and fast. We need the very best candidates to apply and we need to develop as many great leaders-in-waiting as we can. The problems with school leadership - both perceived and real - have existed for too long. The situation must be improved. Below are my suggestions on how to do just that.

Systemic changes

Address the biggest problems first

Appointing headteachers to schools in difficult circumstances is a priority. Good leaders have little incentive to take on the challenge of a school in special measures because unless things improve quickly, continuing "failure" can mean the end of a career. The cost is too high.

The Headteachers' Roundtable - a thinktank of school leaders from across the country - offers potential remedies in its education election manifesto. It proposes three-year contracts with security of tenure for talented headteachers who commit to working in the most socio-economically deprived areas and a guaranteed post once their contracts are over.

It also suggests establishing a national recruitment fund to provide targeted resources for headteachers.

Crucially, those headteachers should be given enough time to transform the schools in a way that meets the needs of the community; no quick fixes through mass student expulsions. The manifesto recommends that full inspection should not take place until the beginning of the third year at the earliest.

Establish a Royal College of Teaching

We must commit to the creation of this body, no matter how difficult we might find the establishment process. The government should play a role in its creation, but it should thereafter be run by teachers, for teachers. And one of its key functions should be to meet demand for talented headteachers by supporting the growth of senior leaders.

Develop less trigger-happy inspections

In a promising move for job security, Ofsted is changing. The watchdog's schools director Michael Cladingbowl and his regional counterparts are engaged in discussion about the future of the inspection process. My guess is that over the next few years we will see Ofsted become a force for school improvement, rather than just school judgement.

Personal changes

Reconnect leadership to the classroom

When it comes to the business of leading a school, the classroom still has to be the priority. Truly great teachers should become leaders and leaders should continue to be truly great teachers by taking examination classes, team-teaching, volunteering for the tough groups, coaching colleagues, mentoring and so on.

In order to do this, headteachers must change the structure of their schools to avoid spending hours on operational management. They should create staffing structures where experts are in charge of human resources, finance and premises. They should appoint professionals from outside education to these posts and trust them to get on with it, becoming involved only when absolutely necessary.

Enjoy what you do

It is easy to get bogged down in school leadership and forget to enjoy this privileged position. A happy headteacher is essential because, as Passmores Academy principal and Educating Essex star Vic Goddard points out, you make the weather.

I like to laugh a lot. I try to avoid wasting energy on being upset or angry - I just sort things out with humanity. Joe Strummer and The Clash still influence everything I do: I'll play London Calling while I'm working in my office. I have yellow roses or daffodils on my desk most days of the year. I'm happy in my work and I have a lot of fun. This is crucial if we are to enthuse others to follow in our footsteps.

The job doesn't have to be lonely. If you show you are fallible, apologise when you get it wrong, admit that you can't do it all and never forget to say thank you, you will find your workplace friendlier than you could ever have imagined.

Get the work-life balance right

Last January, I wrote a blog about the personal cost of headship. The response was awe-inspiring, reaching 95,000 views in 11 days.

The post details the moment I realised that being a headteacher had damaged my relationship with my son. Since that epiphany, if either of my sons ever asks me to do something, I do it, no matter how much work I have.

It is liberating when you decide to draw the line. When I admitted that I couldn't be the perfect headteacher, I became better at my job. It was my fourth year in charge and I have prioritised ruthlessly ever since. Make sure you sort out the important stuff and don't be afraid to cut corners when the workload is overwhelming you.

And, whisper it, the holidays are a treat. When I add up all my school-free days, I reckon I get five clear weeks of holiday a year and for eight weeks I can work flexitime to suit myself. In many ways, being a headteacher is one of the most family-friendly professions; I have solicitor friends who work many an evening and weekend and have half my holiday time.

If people perceive the job to be incompatible with family life, it will prevent hundreds of potentially fantastic leaders from taking up positions. Make sure you get the balance right so others can see that it is possible.

To be a headteacher, you need to have a deep-seated commitment to public service. It's not about you and your ego. Ultimately, it is about the children. And we need people of humane sensibilities to do the job. If we are going to burden classroom teachers with the weighty responsibility of providing the best possible education to young people, we need headteachers with the wisdom and humility to create the conditions for professional growth.

If that sounds like you, then do it. Yes, there are barriers, but there are so many benefits. I genuinely love my job. In the end, being a headteacher has helped me to realise my ultimate aim in life: namely, to leave the world a slightly better place.

We need to ensure that the current crop of would-be leaders fulfil their ambitions. We need to take a serious approach to the worrying possibility that the best candidates may not be coming forward. The image problem of leadership is not terminal, we can still turn it around. Let's accept the challenge and make that change happen.

John Tomsett is the headteacher of Huntington School in York and co-founder of the Headteachers' Roundtable thinktank. His book, HEAD Teacher: Why headteachers should be the HEAD teacher in their schools will be published by Crown House next year

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