'School leaders feel they've been thrown under a bus'

With 47 per cent of heads talking of leaving, the government may be about to reap what it has sown, says James Bowen

James Bowen

Covid and schools: School leaders feel like they have been fighting fires for 12 months, says James Bowen

“Thrown under the bus”, “hung out to dry”, “abandoned” and “badly let down”. 

These are just some of the recurring phrases I hear school leaders using to describe how they feel they have been treated by the government over the past 12 months.

These leaders are not referring to the odd bad decision here and there. They are referring to something deeper – a sense that, throughout the pandemic, the government has failed not only to fully support the profession, but that it has also been only too willing to let schools and school leaders take the blame for its own failings

At times, it has felt as though the government has gone out of its way to try to create conflict in education, to pit families against schools in order to distract from its own shortcomings. 

Covid and schools: The long charge sheet against the government

There is no doubt that the charge sheet is a long one – too long to list in full here. However, the tone was set as far back as last March, when school leaders were presented with an impossibly wide-ranging key-worker list in the early hours of a Friday morning, and given the weekend to work out who wanted a place and how they could organise it. 

Shortly afterwards, we had the free school meals debacle, which involved school leaders not just working through the night simply to gain access to the IT system, but also facing the ire of parents when the vouchers they had been promised by government were not immediately forthcoming. 

On top of this, school leaders were effectively asked to set up Covid testing centres with little more than a PowerPoint presentation for support, and to singlehandedly run a track and trace system during every school holiday. It was school leaders who were left to inform families that they would need to self-isolate over Christmas. 

The relationship between school leaders and the government was already reaching its nadir last summer, but its lowest point surely came in January of this year, when parents were proactively encouraged to report their child’s school to Ofsted if they felt the remote learning being provided was not up to scratch. This was the thanks leaders received for their remarkable efforts.

Up until now, the government has not really had to face the consequences of such actions. Despite all the growing pressures on them, school leaders have stuck to their task, not wanting to walk away from their schools while they have been at their most vulnerable.

However, there are signs that, as we begin to emerge from what we all hope are the darkest days of the pandemic, this could be about to change – that government may be about to reap what it has sown. 

Midway through last year, we began to pick up on more and more leaders telling us that, once they had steered their school through the current crisis, they would be stepping away. 

We are getting increasing numbers of leaders asking about options for early retirement. And, in a survey, 47 per cent told us that, as a result of the pandemic, they are now less likely to remain in school leadership for as long as initially planned. 

Of course, this is not just about those who leave – it is also about those who are put off from stepping up. Our latest survey data also shows an increase in the number of deputy and assistant heads who say they do not aspire to headship.  

While the statistics above make for pretty bleak reading, there are actions the government could take if it wants to avoid the full-blown leadership recruitment and retention crisis that it otherwise looks set to face in the coming years.

The government needs to regain teachers' and school leaders' trust

Clearly, there first needs to be a fundamental reset in how the government treats schools and school leaders. The government needs to recognise how far trust has been eroded over the past 12 months and begin to try to rebuild that relationship. 

It also needs to start trusting school leaders, and to restore a sense of agency to the expert professionals. The pandemic has led to a sudden centralisation of powers in the hands of the DfE. School leaders have been subject to a barrage of almost daily directives pouring out of the department, which at times have strayed into areas far beyond the immediate challenges related to Covid. 

There is a growing fear among many leaders that the government may have developed a taste for this sort of centralised, top-down approach. To continue down that path would be a grave error, and would only serve to make the job of school leadership less attractive. 

School leaders are the experts in education; the government should provide them with the resources they need and trust them to get on with the job.

There are other underlying issues, which predate Covid, and which need attention if we are to make school leadership an attractive proposition again. If, as many suggest, this is a moment to look again at our education system, these should be examined, too.

The support that many new headteachers receive remains inadequate and is subject to vast regional inconsistencies. Given how tough the role is, we should ensure that every new leader has access to the best possible CPD and high-quality mentoring support for a sustained period, without fail. We simply cannot continue to run a system where 30 per cent of headteachers leave the profession within the first three years of headship. 

Over the past few years, the government has focused on improving support for new teachers. Now is the time to turn its attention to supporting new headteachers, too. 

Finally, while it may remain an uncomfortable truth for government, too many potential leaders remain put off by what they see as an overly punitive accountability system. This is the moment to look again at how we hold schools and school leaders to account – to find a way to not abandon accountability but to create a system that is both fair and proportionate.

This generation of school leaders has faced a set of challenges unlike any other. They have done a remarkable job of steering their schools through the toughest of times. The government must now do everything in its power to ensure that we retain and support them, while also creating the conditions that ensure the next generation of leaders step up, too.

James Bowen is director of policy at the NAHT school leaders' union and director of the NAHT Edge union for middle leaders

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