Quicker steps into headship

13th October 2006 at 01:00
Some new moves are afoot to solve the looming shortage of school leaders, writes Martin Whittaker

Vivienne Rowcroft didn't want to be a head. For two decades she was happy to be a deputy at Meanwood community nursery and primary school, in Rochdale.

She was loath to seek promotion for various reasons. She could see the rising pressure her head was under, but it was mainly because she liked her deputy role and wanted to keep teaching Year 6.

When the head retired and the school failed to find a successor, she reluctantly stepped in. "I was acting head for 12 months, still having no intention of applying for the permanent position," she says. "But the longer I was in the role, the more I realised there were things within it that were as fulfilling and satisfying as being a class teacher."

Ms Rowcroft, 52, has now been head for three years and loves it.

"I realised that, far from losing contact with children, in fact I now have more contact with all the children in the school, as opposed to just the ones I was teaching," she explains.

She is now one of Rochdale's secret weapons in the battle to overcome a shortage of heads, giving talks about her experience to groups of deputies in which she calls herself a "reluctant head".

The borough is one of 10 pilot local authorities testing a range of approaches to solving the shortage. The National College for School Leadership is working with schools, local authorities and dioceses to help them to replace heads who are due to retire in the next three years.

Pilot areas include the Roman Catholic Diocese of Hexham and Newcastle, the Black Country, Birmingham city council, Blackburn with Darwen, Devon, Hampshire, Sheffield, Rochdale and the London boroughs of Hackney and Islington.

As part of the drive, leadership consultants will be assigned to each area to encourage teachers through to leadership positions. The NCSL says schemes will include talent-spotting potential heads and allowing teachers to work with other schools to develop leadership skills.

Rochdale metropolitan borough council is targeting the image of headship among deputies, particularly long-serving ones. It is asking them what might be putting them off and giving them experience of the head's role.

One scheme, 345 Secondment, sends deputies to work alongside heads in other schools. "It's broadening their experience," says Terry Piggott, the council's executive director. "Deputies' image of headship is often their own head, but when they become a head they will do it in their own way.

They need to see some different ways of working."

As well as support and training for heads, the borough invests heavily in teachers' professional development. Mr Piggott says they don't want to turn deputies into heads only to run out of deputies. Despite this range of measures, Rochdale schools are still having to re-advertise heads' posts.

"We have some good things in place, but I don't pretend we have cracked the problem," says Mr Piggott. "The demographic just tells us it's going to get worse."

Another weapon against the head shortage is data. Schools may feel they are drowning in statistics, but the NCSL says the information for succession planning has not been collected or presented in the right way before, so it is producing a digest to help with the problem. For a given area it will include data about a school's leadership, including numbers, average age and gender breakdown, as well as re-advertising rates of heads' posts, school performance and the proportion of faith schools and very small schools.

Jane Creasy, the NCSL's operational director for succession planning, said the information is intended as a "tool for action" for local authority officers and governors, and will be presented in a very accessible way. The data will be sent in the near future. "We are then saying, 'OK, you get the people in the room - you start the conversation and think about what the priorities are and what actions might help us towards a strategic response to this issue.'"

The NCSL is also producing guidelines to help schools to spot potential successors, and is using other existing initiatives to help teachers move more quickly towards headship.

One such scheme is Future Leaders. At present, this is being trialled in London secondary schools, where the programme is giving 20 teachers an intensive course in school leadership. The crash course is designed to prepare teachers for senior leadership within 12 months, and for headship within four years.

Another scheme is the Fast Track programme, which began recruiting trainee teachers five years ago but was criticised for putting raw trainees on the leadership ladder. The scheme was changed last year into a leadership development programme for qualified teachers.

For the NCSL, one of the main barriers remains the current image of the overworked, over-stressed headteacher.

"If you talk to heads, the vast majority find it the most thrilling, rewarding, stimulating, life-affirming job, despite those things," says Ms Creasy.

"That doesn't alter the fact that there might be things about it they want to see changed.

"I think headteachers and present school leaders are the ones who are in the most significant position to make a difference to this issue.

"They are the ones who influence the next generation of school leaders, but they can't do it on their own."

Heads' unions are involved in the initiatives, too. Mick Brookes, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, says: "As part of the working group, we have made it clear that, alongside this excellent work, we expect the Government to review the excessive demands on school leaders to encourage retention as well as recruitment."

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