Room at the top

9th March 2007 at 00:00
With a shortage of headteachers looming, Nick Morrison talks to three people who are excited by the challenge of leadership

Matthew Oakes is 25 years old and has been teaching for just three years, but already he has a good idea of where he wants to go. He has had a taste of responsibility, and wants more.

"I've always been focused on what I want to be," he says. "The thought of being a head seems far off, but I would love to do it."

After being head of citizenship at Lipson Community College in Plymouth, Matthew, who is also a music teacher, is now a head of guild - the equivalent of a head of house - with pastoral responsibility for 270 pupils.

He says:"For me, a department head is a bit too narrow. I want to be able to work across the whole school and have more of an overseeing role." This sort of ambition will cheer the hearts of those charged with finding the next generation of school leaders, a search made all the more urgent by the looming shortage of headteachers.

A bulge in the number of heads in their mid to late fifties means that, as they start to retire over the next few years, the number of schools with vacancies is expected to increase from about 2,300 a year to more than 3,000 in two years' time. With not enough forty-somethings waiting to take their place, the prospect of hundreds of schools being left leaderless is very real.

Coupled with this is the increasing reluctance of many in senior leadership roles to step up and take the top job. The increased administrative and financial burden, and greater visibility and accountability, mean that for many it is an unattractive option.

Research carried out for the Department for Education and Skills in 2005 revealed that more than a third of deputy heads have no plans to apply to become heads.

"They see the job as too accountable, too relentless and too complex," says Professor Geoff Southworth, deputy chief executive of the National College for School Leadership (NCSL). "Quite a few people look at headship and don't think they can do it. This is an issue of confidence, ultimately."

It's a statement that Lesley Cooper, a head in Bedfordshire and Cambridgeshire for 18 years until she retired last year, and now a field officer for the Association of School and College Leaders, agrees with.

She says heightened criticism of schools, combined with loss of control over the curriculum in the 1980s, created a generation of teachers lacking faith in their abilities.

Schools are also increasingly falling prey to "football manager syndrome", she says, with heads finding their jobs at risk if the school is not performing well. "Maybe some need to go, but it creates a lot of pressure, and maybe a deputy head looks at that and thinks they don't want the hassle," she adds.

Schools likely to have the most serious problems in recruiting heads are small rural ones, church schools (particularly Roman Catholic) and schools in inner London, according to Geoff.

It was partly to tackle the problem in this latter category that NCSL, along with Absolute Return for Kids (ARK) and the Specialist Schools and Academies' Trust, developed the Future Leaders programme.

The scheme aims to rear heads with the potential to run schools in challenging urban areas, drawing recruits from the ranks of existing teachers and also from outside the education system.

"We look for people who not so much want to be a school leader, but want to make a difference," says Nat Wei, chief executive of Future Leaders. "We want people who have the potential to perform as a head, and who are committed to working in that kind of environment."

Sarah Mintey was among the first cohort of 20 Future Leaders who started in schools in September. She was the director of business and community initiatives at a school in Norfolk and had spent 11 years working as a teacher. Now she is the assistant head at Robert Clack School in Dagenham.

"I wanted to be a head for a long while and was offered promotions in Norfolk, but I wanted something more challenging, something that would really stretch me," she says.

Sarah's residency at Robert Clack in east London runs until the end of next term, when she will be expected to move into a senior leader's post, and be in a position to apply for headship positions within four years.

"I don't think a headteacher's job is easy, and it's daunting to have young people's lives in your hands, but it is a job that I'm excited about doing," says Sarah, 37.

"If you're at the helm, you can build aspirations and create opportunities - you can't do that if you're working for someone else. You manage young people and what you do has an impact on their life chances. Get it wrong and you can wreck communities."

Matthew, who was named outstanding new teacher in South-west England in the Training and Development Agency for Schools' teaching awards last year, recognises that as he moves up the ladder he is likely to spend less time in the classroom, but this is a sacrifice he is prepared to make.

"I'm ambitious and if the opportunity comes up, I will probably jump at it," he says. "I hope that within the next 12 to 18 months I go on to become an assistant principal. I don't have a timetable, but I'm looking at becoming a head in maybe 10 to 15 years." are now open for the teaching awards for 2008. Go to


Theresa Buttery left school at 16, worked for the National Coal Board then as an accountant before retraining to become a teacher.

Having started late, she knows she has no time to lose. Now 50 and in her third year of teaching, she is on the National College for School Leadership's Fast Track scheme, an accelerated leadership programme.

"I know I'm not going to have a long career, but I want to leave my mark,"

she says. "Being a head is a tough job, but someone has to do it and I want to be one of those someones."

Theresa, a Year 56 teacher at Dallimore Primary in Ilkeston, Derbyshire, won the Training and Development Agency's outstanding new teacher award in the East Midlands last year. She is the co-ordinator for science and the anti-bullying policy at her 320-pupil school and is a member of her LEA's anti-bullying steering group.

"I wanted a challenge," she says. "You've got to be extremely resilient, organised and flexible to be a head, but that doesn't phase me at all."

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