Are heads really as vulnerable as football managers?

15th February 2008 at 00:00
Hundreds of heads have been forced out of their jobs in the past two years. Even 'coasting' schools are under pressure. Irena Barker reports on an alarming culture change.

Heads might sympathise with the former Torquay United FC manager Leroy Rosenoir, who was sacked just 10 minutes into his second tenure of the newly relegated side last May.

No school leader has been ousted so quickly, but many are feeling the same dizzying vulnerability. More than ever, figures suggest, heads are falling victim to what has been called "football manager syndrome". Greater accountability, inspections that increasingly target leadership and a drive on results are being blamed for a rash of premature departures at the top level.

In 2006, the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) negotiated 54 compromise agreements for heads, deputies and assistant heads forced to resign from maintained schools. This year's figures are expected to be far higher.

The National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT), which mostly represents primary heads, has negotiated more than 150 such agreements so far this academic year. In Lincolnshire alone, seven primary heads have resigned since September.

John Dunford, general secretary of the ASCL, said last year: "Too often, our members are only one poor inspection grade away from their P45." Casework for the association highlights one head who, just two terms into the job, was sacked two months after the school went into special measures. In the job security stakes, this instance puts heads on a par with the football manager Sam Allardyce, who was sacked by Newcastle United FC just six months into the job.

Mick Brookes, general secretary of the NAHT, told The TES that the "witch-hunts" of the years when Chris Woodhead was chief inspector were "back with a vengeance".

The issue came to the fore last week with the news that Bill Ball, head of Manton Primary in Nottinghamshire, had been asked to leave because the school's key stage test results were not deemed good enough. He was credited with making big improvements at the school, which ranked bottom in the country when he took over in 2001. By last year, KS2 test scores had nearly doubled on 2004, but the school has only crawled up to sixth from bottom in the league tables.

The case echoes that of Jim Green, former head of Haydn Primary in Nottingham, who resigned in May 2006 after the school was placed in special measures. KS2 test scores, leadership, teaching and the curriculum were all criticised. But the school went on to achieve exceptional results that year, as Mr Green had predicted.

The Government's uncompromising attitude to heads who fail to improve schools' on-paper outcomes was underlined by the Prime Minister last year. Schools failing to reach the target of 30 per cent of pupils reaching five A*-C grade GCSEs, including English and maths, would risk being shut down or taken over, he said.

Andrew Adonis, schools minister, said poor leadership was to blame in many of the 800 schools failing to make the grade. The Education and Inspections Act 2006 already meant no head was safe: it allows local authorities to intervene in "coasting schools", which do not have good value-added scores. Even if a school's results are fine, your head could be on the block.

Heads and unions are also increasingly concerned that inspectors and school improvement teams are not taking schools' social circumstances into account, and setting unrealistic targets and deadlines that ultimately prove destructive.

Research from the ASCL suggests the playing field is far from level. In 2005-06, four out of five schools ranked as having "outstanding" leadership were in average or better socio-economic areas. Eight out of 10 schools receiving the grade overall had below-average levels of free school meals entitlement.

Heads who take on tough schools are not given time to make improvements or bring sustainable culture change, they say, which could have a substantial effect on recruitment of talented new heads.

Joan McVittie took on Woodside High (formerly White Hart Lane School) in Tottenham, north London, in 2006. She lives with the constant threat of the school being turned into an academy. "In 2005, only 17 per cent of pupils got five GCSEs at A-C," she said. "In 2007 it was 40 per cent.

"We are under pressure now on English and maths. I've been told that if we don't see improvements we will be turned into an academy, and you know what happens to the head then. When you take on a school like this, you put your career on the line."

St Edmund's Community Primary in King's Lynn, Norfolk, recently received a grading of "good, with outstanding elements" from Ofsted. Head Rebecca Elliot was devastated when the Department for Children, Schools and Families then contacted the local authority, saying the school was a "cause for concern". For three consecutive years, fewer than 65 per cent of pupils had reached level 4 in KS2 English and maths.

One former head of a secondary in Lincolnshire says she was forced out of her job after becoming a barrier to plans to federate the school with a more successful specialist one. The local authority, she says, was not prepared when she dramatically improved the results of the underperforming comprehensive.

She describes her exit as "extremely distressing", with parents and pupils told she had resigned before she had. "We cannot continue to ignore the human face of education and allow highly skilled people to be thrown on to the scrap heap in order for local authorities to appear tough," she said.

"Heads' roles are very often dictated by circumstances beyond the school gates and myriad social circumstances. There appears to be very little understanding of this from the powers that be."

In academies, too, the expectations to deliver instant results seem impossibly high. In November 2004, The TES reported that five academy heads had stood down in 12 months. Only three of the original 12 remain.

However, one of the survivors, Ray Priest, head of The City Academy in Bristol, said he expected the situation to improve considerably.

"When we set out, the spotlight was on us and there was huge pressure," he said. "It was the Government's big flagship programme. Now there are more academies, the spotlight will be diffused. But the pressure is still enormous and you have to enjoy the cut and thrust."

There is evidence to suggest that this is not yet a nation of failing Steve McClarens. In fact, there are still plenty of long-serving Alex Fergusons out there.

Dennis Richards has served for 20 years as head of St Aidan's High in Harrogate, and has weathered two decades of increasing pressure.

He sees the introduction of the market model under Margaret Thatcher and the changing approach to the appointment of headteachers as the seeds of football manager syndrome.

"Over the past 10 years, there has been a change in culture which encourages us to take those teachers who are not necessarily the best in the classroom but would make good business managers and prepare them for leadership via the National Professional Qualification for Headship. But this has been an unmitigated disaster and has led to unsuitable people being appointed. First class heads are usually excellent teachers, too," he said."

Sir Alan Steer, head of Seven Kings High in Ilford, Essex, for 23 years, said: "It would be foolish to judge the performance of a head after several months, but I'm not sure how widespread the problem (football manager syndrome) really is. However, we have to remember that schools exist for the benefit of the children, and not their headteacher, or their career."

Mick Brookes, page 20

How to spot the warning signs

Bob Carstairs, director of member services at the Association of School and College Leaders, deals daily with the problems of headteachers under pressure to resign.

"Many heads will not realise something is wrong until it is too late," he said, "but there are warning signs they can look out for."

He outlines the key questions for heads to ask themselves to detect whether they could be in trouble:

- Have I had a run-in with the chair of governors recently?

- Do my school's exam and test results indicate a downward trend?

- Are there any cliques in the staffroom which may have something against me?

- Am I too expensive for this school? And could the governors save money by getting rid of me and taking on someone cheaper?

- Have I heard rumblings from fellow headteachers in the area about the local authority gunning for particular schools or heads?

For further general and legal advice, and direct help from a field officer, call the ASCL's advice line, 0116 299 1122.

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