‘I don’t see lines of teachers queuing up to take on headship, and I can understand why’

The rate of attrition among school leaders who are sacked, who resign, or who simply disappear is one of the great scandals of our education system, writes a leading head. Also missing is the fun of the job

Geoff Barton

Geoff Barton

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When I was appointed headteacher, I received a congratulatory phone call from my long-lost Uncle Joe in Prestatyn. “Oooh, Geoffrey,” he intoned proudly, “you’ve gone and got one of them King Edwards”.

He was alluding to the fact that my new school belonged to the group established by the young Edward VI back in the 1550s. Nowadays, the boy king would presumably list on his CV being chief executive of an academy chain.

The way Uncle Joe put it – “one of them King Edwards” – made me sound as if I had been appointed as branch manager at, say, Laura Ashley. And it’s where I’ve been for more than thirteen years, head of a proudly comprehensive school – not part of a chain – and with no ambitions for the school to become an academy or an outpost of some multi-academy trust or any of that other structural stuff that’s supposed to make leaders’ hearts go pitter-pat.

All of which, I suspect, makes me a dinosaur.

I occasionally remind myself how unsuited I am to modern headship. I believe that schools are the way society chooses to educate its young and that market forces are better suited to supermarkets than places of education. I don’t consider rafts of tests to be the answer to any educational problem I’ve encountered. I’m sceptical that actual progress in learning is ever linear or neatly quantifiable. I can’t do spreadsheets or business plans.

Plus, I really like teaching. In fact, I like it more now than I did when I started as a fresh-faced rookie 30 years ago.

There. I’m a dinosaur.

I also know that when I lose interest in the classroom, or prefer spending wet breaktimes ensconced in my office rather than out there on the corridors, or no longer get a thrill from coaching our debating team, then it will be time for me to pack it in and head for a job on the Pick 'n Mix.

It will be someone else’s turn.

The trouble is that I don’t see lines of teachers queuing up to take on headship. You can understand why: the rate of attrition among school leaders who are sacked, who resign or who simply disappear is one of the untold scandals of our education system.

It’s a leadership crisis that isn’t helped by the woeful managerialism of government and its assorted quangos. Thus, we get panic measures brewed up in a wide-eyed desperation to be seen to be doing something – anything, dammit – and the consequential drip-feed of snide headlines about standards or toughness or rigour.

This lack of coherent vision for school leadership could have a very high social cost because, frankly, society needs more headteachers.

Many of us now running Britain’s schools didn’t start out with some searing ambition for leadership. We earned our stripes through teaching and honing our classroom practice.  Then we took on a first responsibility as leaders of subjects or houses, with accountability for others beyond our own classroom.

That’s not so different from leading a school.

Which is why I hope the next generation of headteachers will first and foremost see themselves as teachers. I hope they’ll recognise that credibility as school leaders comes from planning lessons, teaching well, marking books and doing break duty. I hope they’ll see that the pleasure of running a school is a natural stepping-stone from overseeing a successful classroom, or leading a departmental or pastoral team.

Most of all, I hope that future heads will disregard the national mythmaking about leadership. Being a head doesn’t have be presented as an act of unattainable heroism or some inevitable sacrifice of any personal life beyond school.

Instead, it’s a job in which – just like being a newly qualified teacher – we experience the rollercoaster ride of joy alongside the gnawing insecurities of whether we are up to the job. That never changes.

Perhaps we veterans need to be better at proclaiming the creativity as well as the pressure, the fun alongside the anxiety. To me, headship represents precisely what education itself should epitomize – a spirit of exploration, curiosity, humanity and – on most days – fun.

Yes, fun. That’s not a word we hear enough in schools or in articles about school leadership.

Geoff Barton is headteacher of King Edward VI School, Bury St Edmunds. He tweets as @realgeoffbarton

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