'This is why running a school has become the impossible job…'

1st June 2016 at 15:30
Primary leadership
… and yet this is how I manage to stay the course despite it becoming more-or-less intolerable

One celebrated primary head writes:

Whenever I talk to fellow heads at the moment, there appears to be only one topic of conversation: “How long before you leave?”

It seems to too many that our profession is not the greatest job in the whole world, as it should be, rather a prison sentence to be endured.

How have we reached such a situation where so many heads and teachers want to leave the profession? Where there are thousands upon thousands of vacancies? Where there are insufficient candidates to replace them?

There are nearly as many differing opinions on how we have reached crisis point as there are school leaders, so I may as well throw my 25 years of school leadership into the mix.

If you peruse the National Standards for Excellence of Headteachers or listen to the official government line, the role can actually appear quite easy. Just a few years teaching, a couple of years of management, complete a course and – hey presto! – you can run a school.

But, of course, the reality is very different. Firstly the job can become all consuming. It can also be really lonely. Often, you feel continually bullied by everybody. Daily new initiatives arrive on your desk, often based on little more than the ideology of a political party.

Is it all about the child? The answer is a resounding no.

The system in place at the moment doesn't allow headteachers to be honest to their principles. Yes, some of us try to be maverick, but the reality is an ever-increasing number of hoops to jump through, and if the government shouts higher, you have to jump higher.

We all try our best, but, quite often, our best is simply not good enough.

The job also requires us to be different people at different times. One minute a teacher, or a social worker, a financial guru or data whizz kid. These roles are played out with a football manager-style backdrop: if the head isn't good enough, they get the sack.

With these pressures, resilience and endless positivity needs to be added to the list of skills needed.

Does it sound like the impossible job yet?

This is the job I have loved for every day of those 25 years. And I have developed a persona to deal with the pressures that I have described above.

I manage to enjoy the periods of isolation (even when it can lead to paranoia). I focus on loving the work with children and changing their lives. I try to love working with parents and governors and, of course, the teachers. I laugh off the pressure created by Ofsted, and ignore the majority of what passes through my emails.

I carefully sift through government policies and decide whether it will improve the school. I never take on too much at any one time. I try to have a clear direction for the school and work to ensure new policies do not distract me from the route I have set. I try to say either yes or no and try not to say "I will come back to you".

I also have fostered support structures made up of superb people all around me.

I treasure my life at school, but – equally and importantly – I have a life outside of school. I have friends to talk education to and some who couldn't care less. I also have hobbies to lose myself in. I don't waste time writing papers that no one is going to read, or reading stuff that will change next week anyhow. I still, and will always, put the child at the centre of everything we do.

All of this explains how I have coped for so long doing the impossible job.

Colin Harris is headteacher of Warren Park Primary School in Havant, Hampshire 

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