Going, going, gone for good

Choosing the time to go is not easy for any headteacher - unless the reasons are medical or profound disillusion. Quite apart from the personal and financial, there are a number of issues both psychological and practical which a retiring head must consider. And striking the balance between personal wishes and the needs of the school can cause sleepless nights.

Many heads over 50 and most over 55 will be giving some thought to leaving the job, even with the prospect of new regulations affecting early retirement. As the pressures increase and the drive to withstand them diminishes, thoughts turn to alternatives. These include not spending several evenings a week at meetings and school events and being able to enjoy ordinary pleasures without thoughts of school constantly intruding.

But this has a flip-side. How, for instance, does the newly-retired head deal with the lack of activity. Charles, who took early retirement three years ago after a particularly bruising time over budgets and redundancies,decided to take a year to get his bearings.

"It was a disaster," he says. "I was just unprepared for idleness. I went from having my day highly-structured and heavily-pressured to a situation where what we'd have for dinner assumed major proportions. Far from relaxing, I just felt tense and useless." He is now doing some inspection work and using his experience to help the work of two charities.

Feelings of uselessness don't just come from lack of activity, they're also the result of loss of status. Not that being a headteacher these days generates much respect but it does provide a sense of identity. Being able to say "I'm a headteacher" in response to the inevitable "What do you do?" from new acquaintances, establishes a persona that disappears with retirement.

There is also the loss of daily contact with large numbers of people. Some colleagues may drive you mad, parents may be increasingly difficult, and governors more interfering, but shifting down from thousands of interaction s a day to the odd few minutes conversation with a neighbour takes some handling.

And what about the children? However little teaching any head may do, all prize contact with young people: it's what brought them into the profession and sustains them through the difficult times. Watching the growth and development of youngsters is a pleasure that stops the moment you retire. Realising that children who have started their journey in your school will be completing it under someone else's direction can be salutary for the head contemplating retirement.

All of which points to the need for preparation. And it can't be left too late. "My problem," says Charles, "was that I thought retirement was an end in itself. I was so tired of the battle, I just wanted to get out. I'd given no thought to what life on the outside would be like." In the circumstances, this may have been unavoidable. But many others leave less dramatically but equally unprepared.

Helen, a primary head for nearly 20 years, was convinced she'd have no difficulty finding work as a trainer. "I'd done a lot of training for the authority and worked with our local university for years. I could see myself being very busy but, when it came to it, nobody came after me. I had to start again, putting myself about to get work." She says now that she should have set up her work opportunities before leaving. "As an ex-headteac her, your shelf life is very short," she says. "Make the most of your contacts while you're still in post."

If there are practical and psychological problems at the personal level, what about the school? The departure of any head - even the useless one whom everyone is wishing would leave - will cause some upheaval. Staff who know where they stand will have to learn new practices and understand new expectations. The school's "politics" will lurch in a different direction as new allegiances are formed and the in-coming head becomes attracted to different people.

So the school needs to be prepared. One element is to give as much notice as possible. There is an inevitable lame duck feel about a head who is known to be going and this can induce the temptation to leave the announcement as late as possible. But, given the problems of appointing heads these days, a late announcement could leave the school leaderless for some time. Lengthy notice also gives people time to adjust psychologically and work through the variety of emotions that always accompany impending change.

Another task in preparing the school is to assure people that the retiring head will "be all right". They can worry that retirement might be psychologically or physically damaging. Re-assurance that this is not an end but the beginning of a new career phase may be required. They will also be anxious to know that the decision to retire is not because of anything they have or have not done. Leaving guilt-free colleagues is an important gift to the school and to the next head.

For most heads, the decision to retire ranks with the other important rites of passage through life. And, like the Church of England version of marriage, it is not to be entered into "unadvisedly, lightly or wantonly" but only after plenty of serious contemplation and preparation. It's important, though, to work through all the considerations that go to make a good decision and all the people who may be affected by it.

Mike Fielding is principal of The Community College, Chulmleigh, North Devon

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