From The Editor - Despondent leaders plan their exit strategies

23rd March 2012 at 00:00

Headteachers are not happy. For those of you married to one, that may not be a surprise. But for the rest of the nation, who probably imagine heads as an arresting yet cheerful combination of Vic Goddard and Millicent Fritton, it will be. Two-thirds of them, according to our poll, are less happy than they were a year ago and more than half are considering leaving the profession altogether (pages 30-34).

The causes of this despondency are the government and Ofsted. A third of headteachers are disturbed by the whirlwind of reform and an even higher proportion by Ofsted's new framework. Whether it is the pace of change or the direction of travel, we do not know. But heads are clearly not in a good place. Admittedly, it is a self-selecting poll, not a scientific survey. However, when more than 1,000 secondary heads respond, almost a third of the country's total, perhaps ministers should listen.

As with all polls, some findings are easier to ignore than others. Almost 90 per cent of respondents felt that the government does not recognise the work school leaders do. If asked the same question, doctors, bankers and even MPs' partners would probably answer in the same sad proportions. Few of us feel sufficiently appreciated, especially by the government. Then there are factors that will fade over time. Inspection tweaks, government initiatives, even reduced pensions, while unpopular now, will be less contentious as they become more familiar.

But after factoring in these allowances, our survey still paints a pretty appalling picture of leadership misery. Two things stand out: 36 per cent of heads are actively seeking to quit now; and half of them would not recommend headship to a colleague. The first hints at a staffing problem that could fast become a crisis; the second is even worse, because it addresses the worth of the role not the temporary mood music. If heads can't be relied on to advertise the benefits of headship, who can? That's bad, really bad, especially for a government that sets such store on competent leaders driving an autonomous system.

What makes our poll so ominous for the government is that secondary heads should be natural allies. A lot of them will applaud ministers' emphasis on autonomy. Many will approve of their new powers. All of them should be delighted that the amount they could earn has been raised to prime ministerial levels. But instead of being onside, 90 per cent of them think the government is not supportive. It takes political genius of an extraordinary kind to make enemies of so many potential friends.

Tellingly, the number of respondents shot up after David Cameron's spring conference speech earlier this month. His hackneyed mantra of schools beset by bad behaviour, soft options and sport-hating lefties was risible, especially to an audience that knows what state schools are really like.

Heads do not need to be told that our education system could do better. They live it, Cameron doesn't. At some point his administration will have to accept that the schools it so effortlessly trashes are its, nobody else's, that if it treats the people who lead them as dunderheads it will end up with no good heads, and that if it wants to improve the educational chances of all it should start by supporting the leadership of the few.

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