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Looking for a leader

Geoff Southworth proposes a strategy for finding high-calibre headteachers to replace those now close to retirement

GIt is well established that headteachers are central to successful schools. However, in the next five years a generation of school leaders will retire. It is vital, therefore, to find enough headteachers of the right calibre to replace them. We simply have to make a success of leadership succession.

The challenge is essentially demographic the post-war "baby boomer" generation is now moving into retirement, a phenomenon hitting all areas of work. The National College for School Leadership has tracked this trend for several years. It was therefore no surprise when the Secretary of State asked us to advise the Government on what to do.

Our advice was all inclusive, based on consultation with heads, governors, professional associations, local authorities, diocesan organisations, other agencies and the DfES, now the Department for Children, Schools and the Family. Everyone involved agreed with the advice and without exaggeration a coalition about the way forward was created.

The idea of a coalition is important. In a school system as devolved as ours here in England, where recruitment is the responsibility of school governors, we all have to work together to meet the succession challenge.

Following up our advice, the DCSF agreed to the NCSL piloting its proposals and has now given us a grant to move to the national scale.

The strategy is based on a framework of action deve-loped by local authorities, heads and governors in 10 local areas. This way, they are able to pinpoint steps they can take to ensure there are enough good school leaders in place. It covers topics such as recruitment, talent and career management, improving retention rates and widening the pool from which leaders are drawn.

The framework is not prescriptive, rather it is a set of solutions which have worked in other areas and a set of tools which can be used. So if, for example, a local authority wants to set up a development centre, it can build on what others have already done.

At the heart of the strategy is a strong focus on "local solutions". We know that the recruitment challenge manifests itself differently in different localities. What needs to happen in one area may not be the same as elsewhere. The age profile of heads and deputies varies from one set of schools to another; so too the local pool of NPQH (National Professional Qualification for Headship) graduates varies in size. Actions need to take account of the specific context, alongside what is already happening to grow tomorrow's leaders.

The role of governors is also important. They should review how their schools bring on leadership talent and what their heads and deputies' plans for the future are.

If we make a success of succession, not only will we bring on the next generation of school leaders, but also ensure that those who are retiring leave behind them the best leadership legacy they can well-prepared successors to build on their work and take it forward to even higher levels of achievement.

NCSL's Tomorrow's Leaders Today campaign involves the college working closely with schools and school leaders, local authorities, dioceses, professional associations, and governor bodies across England to identify and inspire talented candidates to become headteachers. More information is available at

Professor Geoff Southworth is deputy chief executive and strategic director of research and policy at the National College for School Leadership. He has been a school teacher, headteacher and taught at the universities of Cambridge and Reading


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