'Climate of fear' eats the soul

More than half of secondary school leaders are considering leaving the profession, according to a TES survey out today, with most blaming government policies. Stephen Exley discovers the despair behind the facts and figures

Stephen Exley

At the end of next week, Carol Mason will call time on her career as a head. After spending a quarter of a century at Brentwood County High School in Essex, holding the job of principal for the past decade, she is understandably sad about her departure. "I will hugely miss the staff and the kids in the school; I have some very close friendships here. The school is very much a part of my life, and I am very much part of it," she says.

But there is one big reason why she is upset about leaving the school: she doesn't really want to go. "Until recently, I hadn't thought about not being here at all, but things have changed. It's not the job I originally came in to do."

Mason says her decision to take early retirement was prompted by the bombardment of policy changes since the coalition came to power in 2010. She has simply had enough.

She is sick of having to teach to the test, at the expense of individual pupils' needs. "I don't like what I am being asked to do," she explains. And, under new Ofsted chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw, the pressure to impress the inspectors is more acute than ever. Throw in the ill-feeling still festering about plans to reform teachers' pensions and you have a potent cocktail of reasons for any school leader to feel disillusioned.

If that weren't enough to contend with, come September, Brentwood County High will have to compete with a new free school opening in the town. "The school that was on that site closed, because there were too many empty places," Mason fumes. "It's absolutely ludicrous - it's immoral. It's a waste of taxpayers' money."

But, even more than all this, what she is really sick of is the abuse. And she doesn't mean from the pupils. It's the ministers who are the problem.

She is far from being alone in holding this view. A joint TESAssociation of School and College Leaders survey reveals the extent of the anger and frustration among secondary school leaders, with many complaining of "bully-boy tactics" from the government and a "climate of fear" brought on by both the Department for Education and Ofsted.

"We are told all our efforts are not good enough; heads never get the credit we deserve. It's the same every summer; when exam results are up, we're told it's because GCSEs are getting easier. If a child has done badly, you encourage them, you say 'let's do a bit better'; we just face constant criticism. That's not the way to do it. It's a really sad way to end a career when you've been in schools for 37 years," Mason says.

In the face of what ASCL general secretary Brian Lightman describes as an "endless barrage of negativity", she is certainly not the only one feeling tempted to throw in the towel. As hundreds of members of ASCL arrive in Birmingham today for the heads' union's annual conference, the results of the survey, completed by more than 1,800 school leaders, offer a unique insight into how secondary school leaders are coping, almost two years into education secretary Michael Gove's breakneck overhaul of the educational establishment.

The results will make grim reading for the minister. The majority of heads are profoundly unhappy, feel unappreciated and are under pressure to keep up with a package of reforms that many feel will actually damage the quality of education they can provide.

"I have been a teacher for 30 years and a headteacher for 10 and I have never felt so demoralised. The only thing that keeps me going is the thought of the young people, including my own, who did not ask to be caught up in all of this," one head says. "For the first time in my career, and for the first time as a head of 12 years, I feel despondent, unhappy, unappreciated and stressed," another respondent writes.

But it is not only headteachers who are feeling the pressure; their deputies and assistants are struggling too. "I am now very nervous about the future," one deputy head says. "I go to work nervous. I joined the profession to have a positive influence on young people and have had nothing but outstanding judgements in whatever I have done ... now I worry that my practice is considered less good or even inadequate. How can that be? If it is not the case, then it shows my confidence has been shot."

Looking to escape

Many heads have had enough, and are looking to get off the carousel. More than half of the survey's respondents say they are considering leaving the profession, and a third are actively planning to do so. And, perhaps more worryingly, the results of the survey suggest that finding the next generation of heads willing to climb into the saddle could prove to be an even tougher challenge.

While the coalition government seems far from being nonplussed at the regular outpourings of rage being flung its way from the classroom unions - indeed, Gove seems to relish caricaturing the left-leaning education establishment as the "enemies of promise" out to thwart his urgently needed reforms - the education secretary must have at least hoped for a more sympathetic response from school leaders.

Perhaps Gove assumed that with their managerial acumen and holistic perspective, heads would surely appreciate having the extra freedoms and flexibility they have supposedly been handed? What better reassurance could they receive than the new Ofsted chief inspector - the self-styled Clint Eastwood of heads - giving them carte blanche to go riding into their school, guns blazing, and finally take the ruthless action they have long wanted to administer?

But if ministers were hoping for a bit of gratitude, they will be sorely disappointed. Two-thirds of more than 1,000 heads who took part in the survey said they felt less happy in their job than 12 months ago. There also seems to be little confidence that the raft of policy changes implemented by the government will be beneficial to the education system. A third said that they felt they would have little effect on standards; more worryingly, 61 per cent believed that the reforms will have a detrimental impact. Changes to Ofsted's inspection regime also received a less than convincing vote of confidence: just 6 per cent believed that they will bring about an overall improvement in the quality of education, 48 per cent thought they will make little difference and 46 per cent feared a resulting drop in standards.

While "The Two Michaels" - as Gove and Wilshaw have been dubbed in some staffrooms - may sound like a dubious comedy tribute act, recent pronouncements by the duo have been anything but a laughing matter for the profession.

Irrespective of heads' personal views on the government's political agenda, many of the messages coming out of the DfE - not to mention Ofsted - have contained an unmistakable mantra. The status quo is not good enough. Too many schools are failing their students. Teachers are coasting, doing the minimum they can get away with, not truly stretching those youngsters in their care. "Too many children," schools minister Nick Gibb said last year, "especially from the poorest backgrounds, are now getting a very raw deal indeed. We're not introducing enough of them to the best that's been thought and written; we're not equipping them to compete against their peers around the world; we can't even say we're preparing them to enter the UK workforce."

And, ultimately, the buck stops with the head. In the high-stakes world of school leadership, where a headteacher's decisions could have ramifications for thousands of lives for decades to come, mud sticks. Public dressing-downs cause deep, painful scars on the collective psyche of the profession, as classroom teachers can testify. The claim back in 1995 by former Ofsted chief inspector Sir Chris Woodhead that there were 15,000 inadequate teachers in the country's schools can, even now, provoke fury among those who worked in classrooms at the time and had to deal with the fallout.

Wilshaw, who earned his national reputation at the Mossbourne Academy in Hackney, East London, by creating a pocket of academic excellence serving the notorious Pembury estate, has been at the helm of Ofsted for less than three months, but he is already making his presence felt.

Heads have already had to grasp several monumental changes to the watchdog's inspection framework. Inspections will be unannounced; outstanding schools will no longer be exempt; even teachers' incremental pay rises will have to be justified.

But, perhaps more significantly, Wilshaw has created what one head described as a "climate of fear" in schools. Indeed, many heads agreed to contribute to this feature only on the condition of anonymity, fearing that publicly criticising Ofsted or the government could be detrimental to their careers.

The chief inspector's most infamous recent statement - "If anyone says to you that 'staff morale is at an all-time low', you know you are doing something right" - aptly conveys the current despondency engulfing heads across the country. And, by alluding in an interview with The Sunday Times that 5,000 principals - around a quarter of the profession - are underperforming, Wilshaw has served heads with what has fast become regarded as their own "Woodhead moment".

"The constant negative rhetoric flowing from Gove and Wilshaw is the most damaging to morale I have ever known," one principal writes. "I have no idea what their end game is, but it seems that threats and bullying are the strategy and they won't be happy until they've somehow categorised us all as failures. I have never felt as disillusioned as I have in the past 12 months, and have never had less satisfaction from a job that is usually so fulfilling and exciting."

This mood is reflected in the responses to the survey. Only 7 per cent of school leaders agreed that "the government recognises the work that school leaders do", whereas 89 per cent said they disagreed with the statement. When asked whether they believed the government is supportive of the teaching profession, the answer was an even more overwhelming "no"; 91 per cent said they disagreed or disagreed strongly.

"By constantly talking down headteachers, the government is creating a ticking time-bomb in our schools system," said Labour's shadow education secretary Stephen Twigg. "It is shocking that more than nine in 10 headteachers don't think that the Tory-led government is supportive of the teaching profession, although it is not surprising, given their hostile rhetoric... If we don't support this generation of headteachers, there is a real danger they could leave the profession in droves."

Perhaps not surprisingly, the DfE insists that the results of the survey are not representative of school leaders as a whole. "While interesting, this survey doesn't account for the views of the vast majority of heads," a spokeswoman says. "There are many outstanding headteachers across the country - working hard to continually increase standards. We're freeing them up from unnecessary red tape and central diktats so that they can get on with their job - giving heads more power over how they run their own schools for the benefit of their pupils."

This perspective is not shared by the ASCL's Lightman, however, who says he has been inundated with emails and calls from frustrated heads. "Our members feel as if it's an endless barrage of criticism, calling into question their commitment. They feel angry and deeply frustrated, and almost like they are being bullied. They are professionals who are absolutely committed. They want to work with the government to improve standards, but they are just facing constant criticism."

Even after 18 years as a head, Stephen Ball, currently executive director of New Charter Academy in Ashton-under-Lyne, is feeling the heat. His pedigree is exceptional; in the 1990s, he transformed the former Ivy Bank High School - a struggling secondary with a tough catchment area in Burnley - from failing to being rated outstanding. Since then, he has led several more schools with distinction, and directed policy for a chain of academies.

Under the current regime, however, he is not so sure he could repeat this success. "The timescales for transforming school performance are unrealistic. At Ivy Bank, an interim inspection (two years after his arrival) endorsed our work; today, I fear a comparable inspection would condemn the school for performing at levels below the national average and (Her Majesty's Chief Inspector) would bundle me into the group of 5,000 school leaders regarded as not good enough. Many younger heads must now feel intimidated and threatened."

Although Ball's confidence in the system may be diminishing, his passion for the profession remains constant. He just wishes it were shared by those in the Westminster corridors of power. "I have been privileged to work with many teachers who are totally committed to improving the life chances of young people. In communities beset by poor housing, family break-up, unemployment, criminality, domestic violence and low levels of educational attainment, it is a challenge to raise achievement.

"Transforming the urban educational landscape is the most important thing we can do for our country and we should unequivocally support those people who dedicate their professional lives to doing it, and not pillory them if they point out the truth that it is a difficult and sometimes messy process. It is intellectually feeble to blame teachers for making 'excuses'; life in poor urban communities is not the same as it is in the prosperous villages of rural Middle England."

Recruitment crisis

Although some would argue that, so far, the government has been unwilling to acknowledge the poor morale among school leaders, there is one potential consequence that it will find impossible to ignore: a recruitment crisis.

A mass exodus of proven heads would paralyse the schools system; the warning signs are there already. Research published last year by Education Data Surveys, owned by TSL Education, the parent company of TES, revealed that 28 per cent of headteacher posts in 2010-11 had to be readvertised.

The DfE offers a more positive interpretation. "Head vacancies remain low and stable - with the latest figures showing just 20 vacancies across more than 20,000 state schools. We're not complacent, though - we're working hard at bringing through the next generation of heads, with a programme to identify teachers with the potential for senior management right at the start of their careers," the spokeswoman says.

But if the results of the TESASCL survey are anything to go by, things could be about to get much tougher. Just 23 per cent of heads said they "would recommend headship to colleagues"; 50 per cent said they disagreed or disagreed strongly with the statement. Almost 68 per cent of the school leaders surveyed said that the government's attitude to the teaching profession since coming to power has made them more likely to leave the profession in the next five years.

When pressed further, it becomes clear that heads are doing more than idly speculating about their futures. More than half (54 per cent) of respondents said that they are considering leaving the profession. Even more striking is the fact that more than a third agreed with the statement "I am actively planning to leave the profession"; of these, 16 per cent strongly agreed. With more than one in seven school leaders, then, apparently plotting an imminent escape from the chalk face - and even more considering the possibility of following suit - a full-blown crisis looks a far-from-remote prospect.

One head planning to bring forward his retirement to next year explains his reasoning. "Over 14 years as a head, (including) the last two as executive principal of two establishments, I have sought to work with colleagues to improve standards and outcomes for young people, with considerable success. I now see all of this under threat by government policies which seem hell-bent on privatising state education and destabilising the whole sector, whether good or bad."

Lightman feels that the negativity emanating from the DfE is the main driver for this. "This is a very serious situation that was completely avoidable. We have always known it was going to be a difficult time, with budget cuts and the pay freeze. People are realistic about the challenge we face in the difficult economic period. But the criticism is completely unnecessary. Instead of the government trying to work with the profession, heads feel that they are just being blamed."

Even those who are sympathetic to the government's policies feel alienated by the messages coming from ministers. "What Ofsted and the government are doing will probably drive up standards," one head says, "but they are going about the process in the wrong way. Too much negativity."

This mood appears to be trickling down the school hierarchy; 73 per cent of deputy and assistant heads surveyed said they were less likely to want to take on a headship than 12 months ago. "The number of applications for the average headship is already relatively low," Lightman says. "What motivation is there for deputies to apply for headteacher jobs in more challenging schools? They are very committed people with a strong sense of vocation, but a lot of talented people who have always wanted to apply for headships are not so sure. It's desperately worrying."

'What's the point?'

Emma*, a deputy head in a Sussex comprehensive, has long harboured ambitions of leading her own school. But both she and her counterparts are starting to have second thoughts. "Among my peer group, people I assumed would go on to be heads have told me they are not going to bother," she says. "These are not people lacking backbone or people who aren't cut out to be leaders; they are simply asking 'What's the point?'

"I always hoped I would become a headteacher, and wanted to have a go in a challenging school, thinking it would be a more satisfying kind of career. But with the new Ofsted regime, I think I'm going to have to pick really carefully. After two years, they want to see you've waved a magic wand, or you're out. It would be very difficult to come back from that. It makes me think that I should look for a school in a leafy suburb so I can keep my head above water."

The price of failure, it seems, is a deterrent for many. By taking on the challenge of overhauling a struggling school, budding heads have the potential to make a name for themselves. But, equally, they could end up falling flat on their faces, blighting their careers in the process.

Turning around a school now, says Ball, is a different prospect compared with his work 20 years ago. He suggests that creating a legacy of success takes at least seven years; in the era of quick fixes and instant results, this is not a luxury afforded to many principals. "The chief inspector's recent announcements will reduce the numbers of people prepared to take on the leadership of schools with below-average attainment profiles - the risk of 'special measures' is too high. He has sent a message to schools that Ofsted does not trust school leaders. The damage is deep and probably lasting. Wilshaw's ambition for children is unquestionable. It is a pity that his approach to achieving it will drive many good people away from school leadership."

An Ofsted spokeswoman said: "Sir Michael Wilshaw has made clear his belief that teaching and headship are noble professions. Sir Michael will speak directly to ASCL members at their conference today. He will be taking the opportunity to reassure them of his commitment to the profession and outlining how the changes he proposes are designed to support school leaders as they seek to raise standards."

But the assumption that an outstanding head can create an outstanding school is not always correct; for every superhead who rolls up at the school gate with a glittering CV and action plan, another proven professional has been shoved out of the back door, labelled a failure. "I've seen really good heads who have, because of difficult circumstances, not been able to turn a school around," Emma says. "People you would call superheads who, because of a particular environment, can't make it happen. It's a tough job.

"When you take on a headship, it's a bit like a marriage - you're in it for better or worse. It takes a bit of time to make improvements sustainable. There might be one or two bad apples, but they are few and far between. It's a really invigorating job, but being criticised by your bosses in public is so negative. You read the papers every day, and there's something else criticising the profession. It feels like bullying."

If Wilshaw really does believe that plummeting morale among the workforce represents a job well done, it would seem that he and Gove are entitled to give each other a pat on the back.

*Name has been changed.

Register to continue reading for free

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you

Stephen Exley

Stephen Exley

Stephen Exley is a freelance writer, director of external affairs at Villiers Park Educational Trust and former FE editor at Tes.

Find me on Twitter @stephenexley

Latest stories

Schools need to be ready for any blame pushed onto teachers by unhappy pupils

GCSE results day 2021: How to handle TAG unhappiness

What should a teacher do if a student blames them for not getting the GCSE grade they think they deserve this year? Tes rounds up advice for those preparing for that possibility
Grainne Hallahan 5 Aug 2021
Teacher assessed grades, TAGs, results day 2021

SQA results day 2021: how we got here

It’s been a frenetic year – with exams were cancelled and the SQA due to be replaced – so here’s a recap of events on the road to results day
Emma Seith 5 Aug 2021