Ros McMullen: 'I am retiring early because I can no longer defend the indefensible'

Cuts, political meddling and 'damaging accountability' have led this celebrated head to step down from school leadership

Ros McMullen


When I was a "baby headteacher", an a old wise head told me that (like the Department for Education) he had pictures of education secretaries on his office wall – all those that had been in post since he had been occupying his office: he would sit and contemplate them, remembering how "all things pass" and how he had outlasted them all. 

I’ve survived nine of them and served under 10. 

I began my headship journey in 2000, as a result of David Blunkett’s policy of "three strikes" for so-called failing schools.  Those first four years were exhilarating: I was encouraged to be innovative and daring and to do things differently, and we did see a dramatic turnaround. 

I have always served as a headteacher, principal and executive principal in what used to be referred to as "challenging circumstances" and, for the most part, I have loved it. From 2000 to 2008, I always felt that government valued those of us working to transform lives, and sought our expertise and input in developing policy. But no longer.

I never intended to retire before reaching 60, but I’m going "early" this summer. The reasons are many: some personal (I’ve had enough of living away from home midweek) and some professional (a feeling "my work here is done – they are now well set up for the next phase"), but it would be disingenuous not to admit that there is a part of me that has simply had enough of having to do more with less, unintelligent and damaging accountability systems, constantly moving goalposts and supporting outstanding headteachers who are treated as the whipping boys for all the failings of social policy. As heads, we have to witness more families thrown into poverty, cuts to every service designed to support them, school budgets squeezed and endless demands that schools "close the gap" caused by disadvantage in the first place. This is nonsense: utter nonsense.

'Searing rage' against the government

It was during the last week in March that I began to wonder whether to retire three years earlier than intended. I was in my second week of an enforced period of absence from work with pneumonia, and concern was being expressed by family and friends about my frenetic lifestyle. So, as I drifted in and out of sleep and watched the unfurling political crisis on 24-hour news channels, I began to consider the possibility.

And then, on 1 April, came the news that the government was seeking to find a way to make teachers and headteachers (along with nurses) accountable for knife crime. During the course of the day, it became clear this was not an April fool, and a deep, searing rage was unleashed within me which fed into my considerations.

I have enormous respect for heads who are moving mountains in spite of the difficulties thrown in their way and being undermined at every turn. I like to think I am a loyal public servant but I’m just a bit too angry right now when I see the lack of support for those headteachers in Birmingham; when I see Ofsted claiming to have carefully considered 15,000 responses to their consultation in 22 days; and when I see the reality behind schools minister Lord Agnew’s famous advice about cost savings. 

Clearly, time for me to continue to make a contribution in supporting school leaders without feeling I have to defend the indefensible in so doing.

Ros McMullen has announced her intention to retire this summer.  She has worked for 19 years as a headteacher, principal and executive principal and is a founder member of @HeadsRountable

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Ros McMullen

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