'As a headteacher, I used to think of the shame I'd face if I lost my job. It now just seems like a matter of time'

It's increasingly rare to see a headteacher survive forced academisation, and one stressed leader asks: how have we got to this cut-throat approach to headship? And why do we allow it?

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As I drove to work this morning, the words from Avalanche by Leonard Cohen struck me: "Well I stepped into an avalanche. It covered up my soul." I have often seen headship as running before an avalanche. When you are a head and gaining distance, know this much, one stumble, one ill-placed obstacle and it'll consume you in a moment and you will be lost.

We need to talk about the stresses placed on the role of school leaders today. We need to be frank and open about it.

I wrote a blog last week about headteacher stress in which I mentioned that whilst fully supporting a school in special measures, I suddenly became impotent (this lasted the whole time I was in the school and took months to recover from when I left). Some said I was brave to say this, others called me a fool. The response I got was overwhelming – thousands of hits within 24 hours and comments and private messages from headteachers, both still practising and not, saying that the issues I wrote about rang true for them.

It's clear that headteacher stress needs to be spoken about, rather than left in the debris of the many avalanches relentlessly crashing down Mount Education today.

Every headteacher who leaves or is pushed out should be a stark lesson – we need to take the time to learn exactly why and how it happened. 

Headteachers face high accountability

I say this because as I look around the education landscape, I see the devastation left from years of high accountability and austerity. I have been a headteacher for 16 years. And I still feel I have much to offer. Would I take on a school in special measures? Should I take on some of our greatest challenges? I have the experience. I think I have the ability, drive and knowledge. But – would I hell. 

This week, a headteacher left their "embattled school" and the media reported that when it went into special measures, one-third of the staff left and they struggled to employ anyone to replace them.

How does a headteacher turn a school around without the staff? And now that said headteacher has left the school, a multi-academy trust is taking over, in the interim.

It seems that if you are a head, in a school at risk, or already in a category, it will not be the governing body advertising for a new head. It will be a MAT and their leadership team doing it. If I was a head under pressure in a standalone, I would be looking at and talking to my local MATs.

I have read this week of another headteacher leaving their school because their school fell foul of Ofsted and then they had to make cuts to staffing. How does a leader improve a school under time-limiting accountability whilst cutting the budget? I know this much from running a large organisation – if you are a standalone school suffering financial issues, it is much easier to sort it out in a larger organisation... a MAT, say?

These issues are only a few in a steaming pot of tough issues in our schools: shrinking local authority budgets hitting special educational needs funding, an increase in the number and severity of social service issues impacting directly on the school and its team, accountability piled upon accountability.

I used to think of the shame I'd face if I lost my job. It now just seems like a matter of time.

I read this week of a teacher who set fire to themselves, overwhelmed by stress. I read this stuff more and more. Someone has to take ownership of this. We have to do something. I look to our education secretary – has anyone seen her?

Now, I am not here to criticise MATs or education secretaries. I have seen some great things happen within MATs and can only imagine how tough the education remit must be.

Incredible pressures

I am here to stand up for headteachers doing incredible things under incredible pressures. I am here to ask, why do most people now revert to the cliched football manager analogy when talking about headteachers under pressure? How have we got to this cut-throat approach to headship? Why do we allow it?

It would seem that MATs are the answer to the multitude of problems facing schools. They will be there to pick up the pieces and clear the shattered remains of the disasters brought on by an incompetent headteacher that levelled the school community. That transition, if triggered by Ofsted, will be a bloody one for the school leader.

When schools go into those categories, MATs take over. It's very rare to see the school leader there afterwards. They become the scapegoat and the school moves on...with a different uniform.

In happier times, I played in a band called The Fore Heads. We did one performance (with me) at a heads' conference. This was a few years ago and half the band have left headship. All much younger than me. All talented and respected educationists taking on massive challenges. All consumed by the avalanche. The other two heads are running as fast as they can, but all we can see in front of us is obstacle after obstacle, hidden trip wires, black holes and looming snow storms.

Brian Walton is headteacher of Brookside Academy in Somerset. He tweets as @Oldprimaryhead1

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