Loneliness, long hours and litigation make leadership a poisoned chalice

13th February 2009 at 00:00

Offering perks such as gym membership and the chance to take time off work could help keep headteachers happy and encourage senior staff to apply for the top job, a new book about the pressures of school leadership has suggested.

In spite of feverish succession planning, worries about the difficulties of being a head and the harsh consequences of not succeeding will continue unless wellbeing is taken seriously, says the study.

Pat Thomson, director of the Centre for Research in Equity and Diversity in Education at Nottingham University says it will get harder to attract school leaders with the right qualities because many talented educators can't see themselves doing the job.

In her new book, School Leadership: Heads on the Block?, Professor Thomson argues that many teachers now see the top job as "risky business" and are put off applying because of the long hours and difficult demands.

She argues that many become heads for idealistic reasons and hope to make a difference to the lives of children and young people, but they end up leaving the job earlier than they expected because of frustration and disappointment.

Professor Thomson carried out research in the UK, US and Australia, and used her own experiences as a head in Australia to examine the demands on teachers and how they have changed. Professor Thomson also suggests ways of tackling the daily pressures heads say they face.

The book examines why so few teachers apply for headship posts and why so many heads leave.

Describing a world where school leaders are judged and receive media attention and litigious claims as well as having to become plumbing and building experts, Professor Thomson says much of their time is spent dealing with staffing issues - recruitment and quality control.

Heads describe their problems to Professor Thomson and how much time they have to spend helping a very few families. Pressure from school leaders comes not from children, but from "external sources".

Professor Thomson says supporting those parents and children is becoming increasingly challenging, both professionally and personally, for headteachers.

"There can be a decided Groundhog Day feeling attached to predictable issues. Having to deal with staffing, building and discipline day after day can simply just wear some serving heads out," she writes.

More importance should be placed on head's wellbeing, with audits of their hours and stress. She also thinks they should be given gym membership, a job coach, access to more training and development and sabbatical leave.

'Sandra', a head, told Professor Thomson the Pounds 25,000 she had been given to improve her primary school in a former mining village was a "drop in the ocean".

"It's the most revolting process I've ever been through. I'd never, ever want to find myself in a position like this again, because I've actually had a very deep belief in the value of education throughout my entire life and I'm now doing things that I can't live with," she said.

"That is why I couldn't say, at the moment, that I would want to go into another headship. I am sick to the back teeth of working a system that is not fit for young people."

How to keep a head

- Build salary and perks together as wellbeing packages: gym fees, life coaching, wellbeing training plus sabbaticals.

- Hold regular satisfaction surveys so heads can discuss support they would like from authorities.

- Give heads more opportunity to redesign the way their schools work, including staff organisation, curriculum and decision making.

- Introduce a workload impact statement to keep a check on frequency of policy changes and how they affect heads' working lives.

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