Are we finally taking the steps towards empowering women to take on school leadership?

The leadership gender gap in education is huge. Headteacher Julie Keller asks: could the new women-only headship programme spark a much-needed revolution and inspire young female leaders of the future?

Julie Keller

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Inequality at work is – quite rightly – a hot topic. We are finally starting to sit up and take note when it comes to addressing these issues in the world of education. Teaching is a female-dominated profession, yet even in education there is a leadership gender gap: 63 per cent of secondary school teachers are women, but only 39 per cent are headteachers. This is a massive underrepresentation of females in a leadership role.

Not only is this an unacceptable statistic, but it also sends the wrong message to girls before they step out into the world of work. In a female-dominated teaching environment, it should be the norm for women to aspire to be the leaders in their field. The majority of leadership roles within teaching are held by men, often older men, with a stereotypically masculine approach and an "old boys" network for support.  Even at their best, they are hardly role models for young women.

Outside of the teaching profession, working life "at the top" is still dominated by men and networking plays a big part in success.  Girls need to be empowered to compete in this environment and that requires great role models. By addressing the leadership gender gap within our profession, we will also ensure we are inspiring and instilling confidence in young female leaders of the future.

Inspiring female leaders

I was encouraged to see the launch last week of the first "women only headship programme" by the National Professional Qualification for Headship (NPQH), which aims to tackle some of the barriers to leadership in an area which impacts on the lives of young people everywhere. The course – which will support women to address the challenges of headship and inspire them to become leaders – offers an important opportunity. 

As one of the youngest ever heads of an all-girls school, and as a young female leader, I can fully identify with many of the challenges facing women. A headship involves more than educational matters and this was certainly of concern to me. You need to be a marketer, a finance manager, a networker, an inspirational speaker, a health and safety expert. Being a very young headteacher also comes with the challenges of gaining respect from an older workforce and potential concern from parents. I am extremely fortunate to say that parents have shown me overwhelming support, as shown in our recent ISI inspection. It can be an intimidating role to step into.

As an all-female course, this new qualification will allow emphasis to be placed on the issues which matter most to women. I love the fact that it will be led by inspirational female role models who will instill in women the confidence that they do have the skills required to do the job. 

Free from stereotypes

I wholeheartedly advocate for teaching tailored for women and girls. I see the benefits of it every single day. At my school – Nottingham Girls’ High School GDST – teaching is free from stereotypes. This helps to ensure that girls leave us as confident, self-assured young women with an inner, resolute conviction that they can be whoever they want to be and do whatever they want to do. This female-only qualification will offer young teachers the opportunity to grasp leadership opportunities with a similar vigour, enthusiasm and commitment. 

One of my main motivations in stepping into a leadership role was that I want to empower the girls here at my school to succeed – in any career they choose – and this course has similar aims. 

Now more than ever, given the high stakes world we live in, girls need powerful role models and female heads are uniquely placed to lead by example – of course in both all-girls and co-ed schools. I head up a young, dynamic female senior leadership team (with an average age of 37) which includes mums-to-be. It’s crucial not just to say but also to demonstrate that being a working mother is absolutely compatible with being a great leader. For girls in my school, it’s not just words and rhetoric, it’s real, authentic and genuine and I have seen the impact this has had on them. They can relate to what we do and see they can do it too. They see us networking, giving inspirational talks, winning accolades, and they thrive on that.   

I hope this new qualification is an important step in empowering women across our profession, that it will help them to see that they are more than capable of the demands of headship, that they have the skills and the tools to do the job and that they can – and will – succeed. I would love to be a part of it: to help ensure that future generations aspire to be not only great teachers but also great leaders of the future. 

Julie Keller is the headteacher of Nottingham Girls’ High School GDST

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Julie Keller

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