Headteachers are getting younger. As a generation of school leaders retires, ambitious teachers under 35 are stepping up to the mark, writes Irena Barker
William Pitt the Younger made history in 1783 when, aged 24, he took the helm of the nation. No UK politician has beaten his record as the youngest prime minister.
In English schools too, the most recent figures show there is no one under the age of 25 in a headship, but there are significant numbers who are taking up leadership positions early.
Despite fears of young teachers being turned off leadership by increasing accountability and Government micromanagement, figures suggest there are still young guns undaunted by the challenge.
In 2006, there were about 35 secondary headteachers aged 30 to 34, and more than 530 in primary.
A range of schemes have been introduced with the aim of preparing young bloomers to replace thousands of departing baby boomers. About half of heads in England are over 50 and the National College of School Leadership estimates the number of those retiring will peak next year at 3,500, followed by a decline to 2,500 in 2016.
But what factors drive young teachers to the top so soon? For some, working in a small school has proved the best way in.
Stuart Tulloch is delighted to have been handed his first deputy headship at the age of 26, and starts at the 150-pupil Pilgrim Primary in Plymouth in September.
He puts his speed of promotion down to two years as head of personalised learning at his current school, Catforth Primary near Preston, which has 55 pupils. Being one of only two full-time teachers in the school helped him develop a wide range of skills much earlier than teachers in larger schools.
"I got to co-ordinate so many subjects, and helped see the school through two Ofsteds," he said. "It was an invaluable experience."
The governors, and headteacher Mandy Colligan, were extremely supportive too, sending him on two leadership courses run by Lancashire School Effectiveness Service.
Ms Colligan, who has a 60 per cent teaching timetable and frequently delegates to Stuart, said: "We knew from the beginning that Stuart was ambitious. But we knew that it would be better to employ someone good for a short time, rather than someone less driven and committed for a long time.
"There is a certain pride in seeing someone move on; you have a sense you are putting something into the wider education community."
But Mr Tulloch's road towards headship has not been smooth. In his second post, at a large primary in Blackpool, a senior member of staff called his teaching "inadequate", although his pupils all achieved their targets.
He may have been the victim of ageism, he said. "I was 23 and the next youngest teacher was 35. There were lots of references to me being the same age as the other teachers' children."
But the young father of three is an evangelist for not giving up too soon. "You hear about so many young teachers dropping out before they've even had a chance to think about leadership," he said.
"But things can change quickly. I had that dip in my third year, but I'm glad I never gave up."
Mr Tulloch hopes to progress to a headship by 30, and move into school improvement consultancy by his late 30s.
For others, dedication to personal development while working has opened doors for early promotion.
Melanie Barrow, 28, has just started as headteacher of Stradbroke Primary, near Eye in Suffolk. She puts her fast promotion down to continually challenging herself beyond the classroom.
After a degree in English literature and philosophy, she completed a PGCE and then an MA in special educational needs during her first year of teaching. She took the National Professional Qualification for Headship shortly after.
The MA prepared her for the role of special needs co-ordinator in only her second year of teaching.
She then obtained a senior role in a small school, deputising for the head for several weeks when he was on jury service.
"It's not always encouraged, but studying outside work, on things such as the MA, give you another perspective, which is useful in leadership," Ms Barrow said.
But she acknowledged that it can be hard for young teachers with full timetables to identify their personal growth needs and take control of their professional development.
"There is nothing more rewarding than watching the progress of other people, and I would want to be as supportive a head as others have been with me," she said.
Ms Barrow and Mr Tulloch both found leadership through working in small primary schools, but what is the situation in secondaries?
The trend towards larger schools and academies means the chances for very early promotion to headship are likely to become more scarce, though there should be more opportunities in less senior leadership roles.
About 180 people have found senior positions through the Fast Track accelerated promotion scheme since its launch in 2001, including six headteachers. But some teachers have taken great pride in rising to the top without help.
Ben Slade was 30 when he was appointed head of the 400-pupil Manor Community College in Cambridge in 2007.
For Mr Slade, much of the motivation to lead came from within. "I wanted to do it in spite of the silly Government initiatives. It's something ridiculous about my own personality," he said. "I was more inspired through working with some excellent headteachers, and some who were not so good."
He has already spotted future leadership material in his school. "I have a geography teacher with only two years' experience and he's one of the best teachers in the school," Mr Slade said.
"Some heads might feel insecure about being challenged, or might not want to take risks in giving responsibilities, but they shouldn't be. I moved out of teaching in Wales because there was a real sense you had to do your time before getting a promotion, and I knew I wouldn't be able to move on. I don't want it to be like that here."
Despite Mr Slade's antipathy to official schemes, many have been helpful in providing support and encouragement to young teachers looking to leadership. Fast Track is being phased out next year, but the National College of School Leadership (NCSL) says similar provision will return in 2010, under a different name.
Crucially, the Tomorrow's Leaders Today campaign promotes the concept of 'greenhouse' schools, offering advice to local authorities, heads and senior staff on how to nurture young talent.
Andy Brown, executive head of West View Primary in Hartlepool, Cleveland, and a succession consultant for the NCSL, said: "Heads have to believe everyone has the potential to lead and must promote an ethos where leadership is open to everybody.
"Having an overall collegiate approach to decision making, giving younger teachers a voice, gives them early leadership experience."
However, John Howson, author of Taking Control of Your Career, said that one potential problem is that teaching generally attracts the "risk averse".
"There are relatively few entrepreneurs in teaching. People can tend to come in and not be thinking ahead, as they are motivated by working with children," said Professor Howson.
"But you can't wake up in your early 40s and say you want a career."
NURTURING NEW TALENT
Tips for local authorities, schools and headteachers:
- Offer task-specific temporary promotions to give staff a taste of what it is like to manage.
- Provide mentoring, coaching and work-shadowing for aspiring leaders.
- Create a positive ethos: rewarding leadership activity, placing an emphasis on trust, emotional intelligence and teamwork.
- Have a "collegiate" approach to decision making, giving a voice to younger teachers.
- Advertise the school's leadership development structure to prospective job candidates. Make it clear what their entitlements would be.
Tips for young teachers:
- Link classroom practice to research, take part in National College of School Leadership projects, local authority schemes and placements, building up a range of experiences beyond school.
- Ask to pair up with a senior teacher in school as part of performance management.
- Ask about leadership development opportunities. Good schools will appreciate a teacher who likes to take on new challenges.
Source: National College of School Leadership
HEADSHIP THROUGH THE AGES
Primary and nursery
- Latest Government figures (from 2006) state there are no primary or nursery heads under 30, although The TES has spoken to some, including Melanie Barrow, 28 (above).
- There are more than 530 primary heads aged 30 to 34.
- The largest age group for primary heads is 50 to 54, with nearly 5,700 in that range.
- Around 3 per cent of deputy and assistant heads are aged 25 to 29.
- Official figures from 2006 show there are no secondary heads under 30. Ben Slade (above) became head last year aged 30.
- There are about 35 heads aged 30 to 34.
- There are more than 300 deputy and assistant heads under 30.
- The largest age group for secondary heads is 50 to 54, with more than 4,000 in that range.
- There are around 105 secondary heads aged over 60.