Headteachers are drowning in accountability

The premature retirement of celebrated head Stephen Tierney shows it’s time to overhaul how schools are held to account, says Ed Dorrell

One respected headteacher's early retirement shows how much pressure school leaders are under, writes Ed Dorrell

One of the things you learn in the news business is that certain stories just “land” at the right time – and that the reaction can be as telling as the story itself.

The news that much-loved and respected headteacher Stephen Tierney has decided to throw in the school-leadership towel early is, depressingly, one such tale.

Tierney – a long-standing secondary leader in Blackpool, who now heads up a small multi-academy trust as well – rose to sector-wide fame through enthusiasm, honesty and commitment (with a bit of help from blogging and social media).

He will step down at the end of this year, aged just 55. The overwhelming response has been sadness, surprise and, most importantly, anger: “If he can’t hack it, then who can?”

The killer combination of Ofsted, floor targets and funding cuts is what has ground him down. To be fair, leading a school for as long as Tierney has in circumstances as tough as those in Blackpool was always going to take its toll. But it wasn’t the scale of the teaching challenge that drove Tierney out. He has instead laid the blame squarely at the door of “the pernicious accountability system” and the “situation on school spending”.

We might have seen this coming. Tierney has, of course, been a vocal critic of Ofsted inspection and its impact on schools serving white working-class communities. And he has warned that more school leaders his age will be facing the same decision unless the culture changes.

You don’t have to look far to realise he is on the money. Another celebrated – and normally robust – head has privately described how he made himself physically unwell with stress last summer, worrying about the impact of Michael Gove’s new GCSEs on his school’s results – and, more importantly, what Ofsted would make of them.

It is shocking, depressing and unsustainable that, according to official statistics, some 31 per cent of secondary heads have moved on less than three years after being appointed.

Optimists would point out the meaningful attempts by both Ofsted and the Department for Education to blunt some of the harder edges of accountability that are forcing so many heads out early. Education secretary Damian Hinds’ decision last year to neuter the regional schools commissioners’ army of amateur inspectors was positive, as are moves to lessen the importance of floor targets and make Ofsted judgements the sole trigger for intervention.

Similarly, efforts to move the focus of Ofsted inspections away from results and on to the overall quality of education from this September will be welcome if they work. But the jury is still out on this one – and many, including Tierney, have major reservations.

If these reforms have the desired effect, then they might go some way towards stemming the flow of heads out of the profession. But the big worry is that, even if they are successful within their own limited terms, they are likely to be remembered as akin to rearranging the deckchairs.

Warning signs such as Tierney’s early retirement – and the reaction to it – should not be ignored. There is a growing sense that the current system doesn’t need tinkering with: it needs to be scrapped. We will always need accountability, but it must be totally rethought.

As Tierney puts it: “At some point, we will need to stop pulling people out of the river and go upstream to find out why they are falling in.”

He is right. This country – as insanely dysfunctional as it seems right now – cannot afford to lose another generation of headteachers. Now, surely, is the time to be brave: the profession is drowning.

Ed Dorrell is head of content at Tes. He tweets @Ed_Dorrell

This article originally appeared in the 29 March 2019 issue under the headline “Heads are drowning: only radical thinking can save them now”