The head's lament: 'I am absolutely knackered nine-tenths of the time'

27th January 2006 at 00:00
Gill, 53, has been head for three years of a large comprehensive in the north of England, where she was promoted from deputy. A year ago, at a time of crisis in staff recruitment, there were 20 supply teachers covering lessons every day. The head and members of the senior management team were teaching almost full-time. Ofsted came, and put the school in special measures, claiming a lack of strategic vision. "Special measures was like a bereavement," says Gill. "For months, I drove home at 9.30 in the evening crying all the way. I felt sandbagged by it. I was in a daze until Easter."

Recent research commissioned by the National Association of Head Teachers found that stress among heads has rocketed, with 38 per cent of lost days the result of stress. Some unfunded workforce reforms are being "delegated upwards", says Martin Ward of the Association of School and College Leaders (formerly the Secondary Heads Association). Ofsted acknowledged in a report at the end of last year that heads do not have time to fulfil their strategic roles.

"I don't think anything can prepare you for the loneliness of headship,"

Gill continues. "The pressure has been incessant, most recently with TLRs (teaching and learning responsibilities). The timescale for introducing them was impossibly short, the implications of getting it wrong immense. I am working 80 hours per week and still it isn't enough. There is an overwhelming sense of what you haven't done.

"I am absolutely knackered nine-tenths of the time. I feel no zest for anything. Don't ask me what a sex life is, I wouldn't know. I live for the next holiday and when it comes I lie like a beached whale gasping for air, trying to get the strength to do the next job.

"My GP offered counselling, but if I take it up, will that be held against me? As head of a school in special measures, I am already in fear of losing my job. You can't admit stress to anybody in the education authority; you'd feel you were identifying yourself as a has-been. I made an appointment for a counselling session, but didn't have time to attend.

"I went for a drink with a fellow head who has had counselling himself for stress. He couldn't solve anything but just being there and listening made all the difference. Staff are very supportive and senior management work their socks off. I have been at the school a long time, so I can show my vulnerable side. You learn not to think too far ahead. For me, it's not beyond the next monitoring visit.

"If you cut me in half, you'd find the name of this school written through me like a stick of rock. All I've ever wanted to do is make things better for kids, and I think I'm good at it. But if my nephew wanted to be a teacher, I'd do anything in my power to dissuade him.

"I would love an hour with Blair, or Kelly, or Adonis. They have no idea what it is like to be in schools on the front line, or how much physical and emotional energy is required. The way things are going, in 10 years, there won't be any heads, certainly for schools in special measures. So the most deprived children, who need the best resource, won't get it.

"Nobody is looking after heads, except other heads and the headteacher organisations. My advice to others is to look at who your friends are, professionally and personally, and nurture those relationships. Don't cut yourself off. Try and get some sleep, some good food, some relaxation. Look for help, and offer it to others. If you're put into special measures, try not to take it personally. Ofsted don't know you from a hole in the ground."

Teachers' and headteachers' names have been changed. Teacher Support Line, a free 247 counselling service, is on 08000 562 561 for England, and 08000 855 088 for Wales. Online counselling is available at:

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