'Taking a headship comes with huge risks: putting a ceiling on pay-offs for school leaders is madness'

3rd October 2016 at 11:57
It’s already hard to recruit school leaders – look at league tables, academisation and Ofsted, argues one leading head. Telling them that they won't get a decent pay-off if they have to move on will only put many more off taking the top job

You’ve got to hand it to governments – not just this present one, but all of them in my long experience. You can always rely on them to create a knee-jerk reaction to something that appears wrong and bang in a new regulation that ends up making things worse.

There’s been an outcry recently about large pay-offs for public sector workers. Generally, it happens in local councils where senior executives, having presumably incurred councillors’ displeasure, receive vast sums to go. Sometimes, having accepted redundancy, they return on a consultancy contract. The press have a field day, and we’re all cross because we taxpayers foot the bill.

So far, so good. Eleanor Busby reported in TES on Wednesday the government’s plan “to cap all exit payments for the large majority of public sector workers at £95,000…. to stop six-figure pay-outs” and also to impose a 15-month ceiling on the maximum period of salary that can be paid as a redundancy payment to all public sector workers.

Predictably, Russell Hobby, general secretary of the NAHT headteachers' union, was quick to criticise these measures. He would, wouldn’t he? After all, he represents heads.

But he’s right.

Mr Hobby’s complaint about the measures “penalising” school leaders may cut little ice with the average Daily Mail reader, fulminating about the alleged waste of taxpayers’ money: but let’s consider what happens when we make it harder for people to get out.

Any head taking on the task of turning around a failing school knows that it’s fraught with risk. It’s not just a tough job: pressure from Ofsted and the Department for Education, when results don’t improve quickly enough, soon leads to a parting of the ways. We all know it’s true, and have seen it happen to good people.

At least, we might have said, they get a decent pay-off. And £95,000 sounds a good pay-off: until you think that it might be someone approaching 50 who may not get another job. Their pension isn’t complete, and despite two or three decades of dedicated work in education, they can look forward to a bleak future. They’d be foolish to go for much less.

So what happens? They won’t go voluntarily if the redundancy payment isn’t generous enough. So someone will have to sack them: and then, as Mr Hobby points out, there will be all the expense of a tribunal hearing.

Who will take on the most challenging schools?

There’s a curious irony here: by making it harder to leave with a good deal, government will render it more difficult to recruit school leaders, particularly in challenging schools.

We won’t retain good school leaders by locking them in: we actually attract them by giving them the comfort of – where deserved – a fair exit package if things don’t work out. With the housing market appearing to stall, and lousy interest rates for savers, this will be yet another measure that will render school leaders still less likely to take a personal or career risk in schools where we need the best of the profession.

As I’ve suggested, this measure will please the more hawkish elements of the press, as will a quote from the Treasury about being “fair to taxpayers”. It’s easy for policymakers to talk tough in situations like this: yet they readily gamble billions on an untested and probably obsolescent nuclear reactor programme which will eventually produce electricity at a likely exorbitant cost.

I’ve taken some professional risks in my time, pushing through changes and developments in the schools I’ve led which weren’t always popular with everyone. A fair degree of over-confidence helped, but there was also that feeling (not necessarily justified!) that I would be able to get another job or, if things went wrong, I could expect a fair deal done if I had to get out.

Heads carry the can: we cannot avoid those “what if?” thoughts. By by closing the exit door to little more than a crack, government will make it not easier but more difficult to retain good senior executives and school leaders.

But then, content to win headlines and to save some pounds in the short term, policymakers too seldom look closely at the consequences of their decisions.

No change there, then.

Dr Bernard Trafford is headteacher of Royal Grammar School, Newcastle upon Tyne, and a former chairman of the HMC. The views expressed here are personal. He Tweets as @bernardtrafford

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