It is less than three years since Sir Digby Jones, then chief executive of the Confederation of British Industry, said at our annual conference that "primary education is doing well". So we must now ask why increasing numbers of heads are being hounded out of office, or simply giving up through sheer despair.
The case of Manton Primary, reported in The TES last week, is typical of reports from around the country of good heads voting with their feet. There is no doubt that Bill Ball is a good head. His last Ofsted report glowed with praise for his leadership; likewise the good teaching in the school. Since then, he has established greater community cohesion and the school is rapidly approaching a stage at which it is meeting those national floor targets. In short, Mr Ball has been doing everything in his power, with his supportive school team, to move the school on, raising attainment to levels never before seen in that community.
But this is not just about Bill Ball. Hundreds of my colleagues across the country think the same way. When you give your all, work with the passion and conviction that exemplifies the best school leadership, then some curriculum accountant tells you your numbers don't add up, it is hardly surprising that there is an exodus from the profession.
There is an increasing anxiety among my colleagues about malevolent inspection teams (local and national) arriving armed with contextual value-added (CVA) data and making judgements about schools from afar. The analysis of the situation is correct: people are not applying for headship because they see it as bound by bureaucracy and they feel vulnerable. Why would a young deputy apply for a headship in a challenging area with all the risk that entails when they have a family and a mortgage?
We will not improve recruitment until we have improved retention. When Labour came to power 11 years ago, the school improvement guru Andy Hargreaves wrote: "Don't expect this Government to help - at least not yet." We have been waiting for 11 years and we have the same outmoded inspection system, the same depressing assessment systems and the same naming, blaming and shaming culture. And standards are stuck. If we are to progress, things must be done differently. School leaders can start by doing several things:
- There must be zero tolerance of bullying and disrespect from those who judge us.
- When CVA is used as a determinant rather than indicator of an inspection outcome, a complaint must be lodged and the professional associations of staff in the school should be informed.
- When anyone insists on more bureaucracy, it is the head's duty to point out that the workforce agreement applies to school leaders as well as the rest of the workforce.
- Don't pass on bureaucracy. Good teaching has three essentials: meeting clear, concise objectives for the lesson; having the materials you need to hand; and teacher assessment that informs planning so that pupil progress is built on prior learning.
- Enjoy being with pupils: to do that you have to be out of the office.
- Take your dedicated headship time: the National Association of Head Teachers guideline is the equivalent of time given for planning, preparation and assessment time; it is hard to think creatively when everyone wants a piece of you, so work off-site.
Fundamental change can only come from re-thinking the systems that are barriers to further progress. To move on we must have:
- accountability that promotes integrity;
- assessment that celebrates the success of all pupils because every child matters; and
- capacity-building so the Government's "audacious" plans for pupils can be realised.
We are at a crucial point in the direction of travel, and we must ask whether this Government is at last going to be brave enough to re-think its approach to school leadership. Turning up the heat still further will simply boil the frogs already in the water, and dissuade those on the outside from jumping in.
Mick Brookes, General Secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers.