Editorial: To lose one head may be regarded as a misfortune.

13th February 2015 at 00:00

It's an interesting time to be headteacher - or not be a headteacher. Many schools are struggling to recruit as insufficient numbers of candidates put themselves forward for the top job. The accountability system - along with the high stakes - can leave heads feeling more nervous about their long-term prospects than one of Henry VIII's wives.

Against this backdrop, how anyone in government thought it would be a good idea to threaten primary leaders with the sack if pupils didn't know their times tables is simply staggering. Especially, coming as it did, just before the results and proposed solutions to the Workload Challenge.

In their response, education secretary Nicky Morgan and deputy prime minister Nick Clegg even acknowledged that "pressure from outside is a major factor - pressure from school leaders, from Ofsted (whether real or perceived) and, yes, from government". Left hand, right hand, anyone? Perhaps someone could supply ministers with mittens suitably marked to make things easier.

With all this going on, it didn't come as much of a surprise at the weekend to hear from the Future Leaders Trust about the "missing" women in leadership positions in England's schools. In a profession that is 74 per cent female, just 65 per cent of the top posts are held by women. If this were reflected in leadership roles there would be 1,739 more female headteachers. This bleak picture has stubbornly failed to change for five years.

It would be pleasing to think that perhaps these women are the smart ones, hiding behind a stack of marking hoping no one will see them and ask them to put their hands up for promotion. But sadly it's more likely to be down to some good old-fashioned sexism, with female candidates facing discrimination from governors "who are expecting to employ a middle-aged man", according to Kate Chhatwal, chief programme officer at the Future Leaders Trust.

There are, of course, also practical reasons for this under-representation. Aspirational women with young children can often feel that the job of headteacher is incompatible with family life, or they may lack the self-belief to take that step up. And confidence as a leader is crucial - to be able to deal with unruly pupils, difficult staff, complaining parents and anything else school life can throw at you. You have to know what you're good at and learn the rest - fast.

But the type of school you choose to lead can be vital, says Oliver Joseph, a veteran headteacher in the North of England. Controversially, he believes school leaders are at their best working at their natural social level. "If we venture too far away from that level, things get trickier, our leadership is less assured and the job becomes overwhelming," he writes.

Yes, leaders should be able to do the job in any circumstances. The question is: do they want to? It's a tough job with many challenges, but find your natural fit and "it is entirely possible to be a happy headteacher", Joseph says.

If you find that balance, your school could be as lucky as Catherine Parr and keep its head, despite the odds.



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