Stop putting new heads on the block

6th March 2009 at 00:00
The speed at which leaders are being sacked will not help to stabilise schools

The country seems to be losing its heads. At least 150 secondary school leaders have been forced out in the past year alone, according to the Association of School and College Leaders (see page 1). In many sectors, an attrition rate of up to 5 per cent among top-tier management, over and above natural wastage, would not be regarded as extreme. Indeed, it might be regarded as healthy. However, when the rise in numbers of those sacked has increased fivefold in four years, it is time to worry. And when the cull is concentrated in the most challenging schools, and many of its victims are relatively young, alarm with a slight hint of panic may be in order.

Three years ago, the National College for School Leadership warned that headteacher recruitment would get worse before it got better as the cohort of suitably qualified candidates shrank. It prophesied that 2009 would be particularly gruesome.

To its credit, the NCSL launched a raft of largely successful initiatives to expand the potential pool of candidates and to spread good leadership practice. The best-laid plans, however, are no match for politicians in a hurry. Heads in challenging circumstances are caught in a pincer between academies impatient to show they can make a difference, and national and local government desperate to do something. Scalping a few heads is quick and easy evidence of activity.

Unsurprisingly, the high casualty rate is causing potential recruits to think twice about headship. NCSL research indicates that 43 per cent of deputies and 70 per cent of middle leaders have no desire to progress further. And who can blame them when the average secondary head spends more than 65 hours a week on the job?

There are only two answers: make the job more attractive and increase the supply of able and willing candidates. Increased pay would help, but providing heads with greater support and resources would be even better. Crucially, heads should be allowed to develop a strategy and be given time to implement it. Turning round a poorly performing school takes years, not months.

As well as working on their patience, government - both local and national - could be more consistent with their message. Heads are sometimes judged against criteria that are out of date, or out of their control. A successful initiative one year is branded a failure by a different measure the next. Drafting in candidates from elsewhere is not necessarily the answer, either. Even successful heads are not equally successful everywhere. Non-teaching managers have found the going tough, too (see The TES Magazine).

The weight of expectation, the pressure for quick results and the shortage of suitable candidates are all conspiring to make a difficult situation impossible. What makes the situation dire is the notion that only a super man or woman with super human skills can tackle such a task. Advertise for heroes and humans tend not to apply. It is the head-as-hero model that should be retired rather than over-burdened heads.

Gerard Kelly, Editor E

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