Leadership - Fast-tracked leaders: too much, too young?

20th June 2014 at 01:00
Eager teachers may feel ready for promotion after a few years in the classroom, but are they getting in over their heads?

Agreeing with your school leadership team is not a prerequisite of being a good teacher. But, arguably, respecting them enough to do as they ask is. This respect is what makes a school a productive place to work.

Unfortunately, teachers are increasingly saying that they can't extend their leadership teams this courtesy. The reason? While a school leader used to be someone who had done their time in the classroom, building up experience on the front line of education, leadership positions are increasingly being filled by teachers with only a hot-offthe-press PGCE and a couple of years' teaching by way of qualification. For some, respecting a leader whose time in the classroom was simply a stepping stone to higher authority is too much to ask.

Of course, some of that resentment is simply bias against youthful teachers: being told what to do by someone younger can feel like a cheese grater to the ego. But this should not deflect from a topic that is genuinely in need of debate. We have to ask ourselves - and answer honestly - how much classroom experience do you need to be a school leader?

Innocence and experience

First, we need to understand how common rapid promotion in teaching actually is. A UK report by the National College for School Leadership from 2012 found that "a large number of appointments into [leadership] posts happen during a teacher's thirties". In addition, it noted that "academies tend to have larger leadership teams overall". As the number of academies increases each year, so do the opportunities for promotion, which are often filled by younger recruits as headteachers try to increase their experience.

A New York Times article in 2009, meanwhile, said of that city that "22 per cent of today's principals are under 40, compared with 6 per cent in 2002; about 20 per cent of them have less than five years of teaching experience, double the percentage in 2002". And in Australia, a 2011 report by the Australian Council for Educational Research found that primary school leaders were slightly younger in 2010 than in 2007, while 19 per cent of secondary leaders were in the 41-45 age bracket in 2010, compared with 12 per cent in the earlier survey.

So it's true, leaders are getting younger. In the UK, the main beneficiaries of this accessibility to leadership are those on fast-track programmes such as Teach First, which allows graduates to learn on the job after six weeks' preparation, and Future Leaders, which puts outstanding teachers on an intensive training scheme explicitly preparing them for headship.

Nigel Whittle graduated from Future Leaders to become one of the UK's youngest principals in 2013, when he assumed the top role at Havelock Academy in Grimsby at just 29 years old. He was aware of the potential negativity towards his appointment but, having risen quickly up the ranks in what are euphemistically referred to as "challenging" schools - taking on assistant headteacher and deputy headteacher positions - he was confident that he was ready to take charge.

Can-do attitude

"I knew I could do the job," Whittle says. "I had worked with some fairly weak leaders who weren't moving things in the right direction.

"For me, it was about being ambitious enough to say that just because things have always been done like this, they don't have to continue to be."

Like Whittle, many teachers climbing the leadership ladder early on would argue that they have had enough time in the classroom to do the job. Do other, more experienced school leaders agree?

Geoff Barton, who for 12 years has been headteacher of King Edward VI School in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, believes that there are milestones that must be reached before any teacher considers moving up the ranks.

"When I started out, my head of department said the first phase of your career needed three years: year one - learning to do the job; year two - doing it; year three - realising you can do it well," he explains. "It's only during year three, he said, that you think about promotion.

"I agree with the principle of that, although `years' might be better replaced by `phases', because people develop at different rates in different contexts."

Barton had more than a decade in the classroom before leadership responsibilities forced him to scale back, but he stresses that he still teaches as much as possible. He advocates that headteachers and senior leaders should continue as classroom practitioners, and says he requires anyone appointed to his leadership team to have a sufficient record in this area.

"Experience tells me that having sorted out classroom management is fundamental to gaining promotion," he says. "Not having that sense of behaviour credibility would always otherwise be an Achilles heel. Hence, when I am looking to promote to the leadership team, I want successful candidates to be accomplished teachers with around five years of experience."

A 2011 report by the Department for Education, titled A profile of teachers in England from the 2010 School Workforce Census, suggests Barton's specifications are sensible, and that his requirement for five years' teaching is as beneficial for would-be leaders as it is for the schools that promote them. It finds that "the length of classroom experience before promotion made much more difference to retention for newly promoted leadership teachers aged under 35. Retention was considerably lower for under-35s if they had less than five years of classroom experience." In short, the more experience younger leaders have in the classroom, the more likely they are to be successful in a leadership role.

Progress to success

Those who are promoted early maintain that classroom experience is but one element of leadership, and that retention figures could be down to poor management training as much as a lack of classroom know-how. But as Helen Wright, an experienced headteacher who has worked in both Australia and the UK, explains, training in management skills may not be enough to ensure that people reach their full potential.

"School leaders at any level need to be good classroom managers," she says. "It's essentially about understanding how students behave, how they react, what stimulates them and so on, and all leaders must have a really good understanding of this if they are to be effective. No amount of management experience can replace that."

Heath Monk, chief executive of Future Leaders, responds by echoing Barton's point that no one can put a time frame on how long it takes to develop that understanding and experience.

"However long you wait, it's always going to be a leap of faith to go into a new role," he says. "If you tried to create a checklist, you'd probably never get there. You are ready when you believe that you are. The thing we do for our participants is to say that you may be accelerated in your career quite quickly, but you will have support around you, in terms of advisers and a peer network, so that you are not alone."

He has a point. Who, in the end, is qualified to judge the length of teaching time required to understand how the profession works? In reality, the circumstances of each promotion are unique and every teacher will progress at different rates.

So there is no real answer to the question of how much classroom experience a leader needs to be successful - we can say only that each case should be judged in isolation. Those doing the hiring need to assess all areas of a candidate's skill set, not just their management training. We can also stress that teachers have to give young leaders the benefit of the doubt; this is the support that Monk calls for. And if concerns about classroom experience do begin to surface, the question of whether that person should undertake more teaching as part of their role should be raised. If the fast-tracked titans are all that they claim to be, and if they are really ready for the job, then they will accept that challenge and thank the person making the suggestion.

What else?

My school is sinking under a boss who's too young to lead.

Why Teach First-style schemes are on the rise around the globe.


Earley, P, Higham, R and Allen, R et al (2012) Review of the School Leadership Landscape (National College for School Leadership).

McKenzie, P, Rowley, G, Weldon, P and Murphy, M (2011) Staff in Australia's Schools 2010: main report on the survey (Australian Council for Educational Research).

Department for Education (2011) A Profile of Teachers in England from the 2010 School Workforce Census.


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