Too tough at the top

29th January 2010 at 00:00
Is the next generation of potential school leaders running scared of an inspection- obsessed culture and `football manager' syndrome?

Irene Hogg was a popular and devoted headteacher. She had been at the helm of Glendinning Terrace Primary School in the Scottish borders for 19 years. Her brother described her as a private person - strong, forceful, able, confident and professional. As a head, there was "never any doubt who was in charge", he said.

So what led her to take her own life in March 2008? The 54-year-old had a heart attack after falling into a freezing cold stream, having swallowed a fatal dose of paracetamol. While it was the action of one desperately depressed woman, the pressures experienced by Mrs Hogg reveal much about the nature of modern headship. It is a job where pressures are so great that high numbers of heads go on long-term sick leave or take early retirement.

Roger Hogg, Mrs Hogg's brother, puts the blame squarely with HMIE, Scotland's equivalent of Ofsted. A critical school inspection in the week leading up to her death had left his sister distraught and "almost shell- shocked", he said. "She felt her whole professional being had been undermined by the process." A fatal accident inquiry ruled last week that her attempted suicide was "inextricably linked" to the school inspection.

This culture of accountability and responsibility is partly responsible for senior teachers' reluctance to take on the top job, according to Mick Brookes, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers.

"Headteachers are under the cosh," he says. "They are made to feel very vulnerable and are only ever as good as their last inspection. No professional should live in constant fear of losing their job or their reputation in the wake of an inspection."

A new survey of senior recruitment in schools from Education Data Surveys (EDS), out this week, confirms that the 2009 "demographic time bomb", which was meant to herald a peak in the number of headteachers retiring, never materialised. In fact, the number of primary head vacancies dropped slightly in 2009 while those for secondary and special schools remained relatively static.

The recession may have something to do with it, says Professor John Howson, EDS director: heads may have chosen to beef up their pension before retiring. Federations, amalgamations and even deployment of deputy heads to "act up" could also be responsible.

But although the situation has stabilised, the survey reveals that some schools in particular areas are still struggling to attract an appropriate number of suitably qualified applicants (see box, page 16). Even the National College for Leadership of Schools and Children's Services - the body responsible for finding and developing future leaders - admits it will be a "challenge" to fill the gap left by retiring heads.

Its own research at the end of last year found that just 9 per cent of teachers want to become heads within the next three years. Only 40 per cent of middle managers say they plan to pursue headship - roughly the same figure as five years ago.

Meanwhile, headteacher vacancies remain too high: some 26 per cent of primary, 19 per cent of secondary and 27 per cent of special school headteacher posts were reported unfilled in 2009. And retirements are unlikely to ease-off until at least 2013.

"We have managed to mitigate what looked like a very serious issue," says Mark Pattison, executive director of succession planning at the National College. "We have helped to prevent a real crisis, but we also recognise that there is some way to go yet. It's a challenge, but we are confident that we have enough people of the right quality to step up to headship in the coming years."

Since April 2009, only those who have completed the National College's National Professional Qualification for Headship (NPQH) can be appointed heads. The year-long course has also become much more selective, based on a two-day assessment process.

Teachers used to take the NPQH to further their professional development rather than as a stepping stone to headship. Now the college has tightened up its criteria. Since 2008, it stipulates that participants must aspire to headship within the next 18 months.

It means that those who take part are serious about applying for headship, but it also limits the number of prospective headteachers waiting in the wings. In 200809 there were 4,175 graduates from the NPQH programme compared with 4,728 in 200708 - a drop of 12 per cent.

Sue Walker, head of teaching and learning at West Alvington CofE Primary in Devon, completed the NPQH last year and is now actively looking for a headteacher post. She has been a teacher for 23 years, but was inspired to become a head after she joined a previous school in special measures. "The head had been done for capability and had really let the school go," she says. Within three years, the school was judged outstanding.

"It was challenging, stressful and demanding, but it was incredible seeing the children's outlooks progress," says Ms Walker.

"One boy told me that when he grew up he wanted to join his dad in the pub. Within a year he said he wanted to go to university, learn more and become a writer. It was wonderful that his life aspirations could change so drastically, so quickly."

She insists that her eyes are open to the challenges of the job. The NPQH covered the pressures that headteachers face, and she has been inspired by two outstanding heads and mentors.

That is crucial to encouraging more senior teachers into headship, believes Professor Peter Earley, director of the London Centre for Leadership in Learning at London University's Institute of Education. "It is important that headteachers project the right image," he says. "If they are stressed out and not looking their best, that doesn't send out a very positive message to those thinking about becoming headteachers."

Of course, it is hard to look relaxed if you feel anything but. Geoff Barton, headteacher of King Edward VI School in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, loves the job - but not the high stakes accountability.

"Ofsted seems to me a monster out of control," he says. Inspectors can be partisan, subjective and fail to take sufficient account of a school's context, he adds.

"I've seen the damage that can be done by cavalier judgments. Ofsted ought to be helping schools to get better, not creating a medieval sense of naming and shaming."

It is little wonder that headteachers - even of really good schools - dread it so much. John Morgan, head of Conyers School in Stockton-on-Tees, has also seen headteachers come under "life-ruining pressure" as the result of an inspection. Those who are described as "outstanding" leaders in one school are branded "satisfactory" or worse in the next, more challenging school.

It is little wonder that deputies are not keen to take on that level of scrutiny, especially if they do not receive much of a pay rise. A head of maths at an inner-city London secondary school could earn pound;54,000, says EDS's Professor Howson. The headteacher of a primary school with fewer than 150 pupils could be on pound;41,500. The pay differential between a head and their deputy may also be slight.

But Mr Barton is keen not to paint too dark a picture of the profession. "I suspect there is a lot of misinformation about what headship involves," he says. "Lots of people only hear about the bad bits - the stress, the accountability, the paperwork. Maybe as headteachers we need to get better at communicating the good bits: the ability to shape things, to implement change, to interact with huge numbers of staff and pupils, and - most importantly - the sense of being in control of the agenda."

These are exactly the elements of the job that most appeal to Adam Reed, 34, who has gone from PGCE student to headteacher in just 10 years. His experience as a manager at Sainsbury's - plus his role as a teacher of business studies and ICT - gave him insight into the marketing, management and financial aspects of leadership.

Since last Easter, he has been head of St Edmund's Catholic School in Dover - making him the youngest secondary headteacher in Kent. "I never saw it as a particularly stressful or difficult job," he says. "I had good heads myself. I knew from an early stage that that's what I wanted to do. It's a fantastic career. I have loved it from day one."

Mr Reed has had three Ofsted inspections at three different schools and never found them particularly scary. "I don't have the ogre vision of Ofsted that some people have. I have always found the inspectors to be supportive and constructive."

Mr Morgan disagrees. For him, the easiest solution to the headteacher crisis would be to "remove the uncertainty of an aggressive Ofsted", which is condemnatory, not celebratory.

"Of course we expect some level of accountability but at the moment it is disproportionate," he says. "Heads play games in order to survive it. If they don't, they may well be removed from their post even though they are usually the hardest working person in the school."

About 150 secondary headteachers and deputies were sacked in 2008 following intense pressure to deliver results, according to a survey by the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL). Four years earlier, just 30 had been axed. John Dunford, general secretary of the ASCL, describes the growing cull as "football manager syndrome".

"We need to have more intelligent accountability based on the aims of the school as opposed to a single set of data," he says. "There has been a huge increase over the past three years of heads being sacked by the local authority or governing body on the back of one set of poor results or a poor inspection. It takes time to turn around a school."

Such heads may lose more than just the job they love. Once the story has been in the local paper, they could also lose their reputation and social standing.

Caroline Barnes was praised by Ofsted in 2006 as an enthusiastic head of a pupil referral unit (PRU) in Cambridgeshire. However, last year the unit was placed in special measures, having been judged inadequate in all areas. The staff lodged an appeal, but Ms Barnes resigned, giving three months' notice.

"I was devastated," she says. "In the four years that I was headteacher my team worked on the points for improvement identified at a previous inspection, when we were judged to be good with outstanding aspects. All our pupils left the unit with external qualifications and our exam outcomes were the best within the county's PRUs."

It is these kinds of anecdotes that make prospective heads think twice about taking on the top job. "I don't think that I will ever be able to live in the fish bowl that is the head's office," says one anonymous senior teacher. "I can understand how someone would crack under the pressure."

Mr Pattison does not deny that the job is demanding, but insists that the vast majority of headteachers say they love the job; a smaller number think it is the "best job in the world". Many heads concur that it can be one of the most important and rewarding jobs to be had. But, they add, enjoyment is being squeezed out by a heavy workload, high-stakes accountability and too many initiatives and administrative tasks.

When Mr Dunford heard Tony Blair's famous "education, education, education" speech in October 1996, he was pleased that it would bring with it resources, but dreaded the increase in pressure and publicity that would accompany the funding. He has not been proved wrong. "It was a double-edged sword," he says. "We now need to move away from government by announcement."

In the early years of Mr Dunford's career, there would be one or two changes to the syllabus every five years or so. This academic year alone, he says, heads have had to get to grips with two new pieces of education legislation, new A-level, GCSE and key stage 3 syllabi, the introduction of diplomas, a new Ofsted framework, and changes to the self-evaluation form and safeguarding regulations.

But heads do not have to carry it all alone, insists Angela Palin, head of St Mellion CofE School in Cornwall and primary headteacher of the year at the 2009 Teaching Awards. She belongs to a network of local heads who share ideas, work and best practice.

Ms Palin believes this sort of collaboration and support - from other headteachers in the area, mentors, outside agencies and governors - helps to boost morale and keeps loneliness at bay. "It you let yourself get isolated then it can be a difficult job," she says. "It's important to be open and share the load."

Clusters of schools are already coming together to share administrative tasks, especially around health and safety regulations, human resources and financial management.

Conyers, a leadership partner school, encourages teachers at the start of their career to take on leadership challenges together. A group will be given responsibility for a whole school area such as developing international links or citizenship. It gives them an early insight into what it is like to be a leader while always working within a supportive team.

But just as the Department for Children, Schools and Families encourages co-operation between schools, its league table mentality undermines it, warns Professor Earley.

"London secondary schools in particular are competing for pupils," he says. "Parents will want to send their children to the school with the best results. Heads may see the benefits of collaboration but they will be individually inspected and judged on their individual results, not as a cluster."

Angela Palin does not let this deter her from what she needs to do. She says she keeps her eyes "firmly focused on the school's vision" and tries not to get distracted by government initiatives or worry over a single year's exam results. "As a headteacher, you are able to expand a positive relationship beyond the class to everyone in the school, plus their families and the local community," she says. "It's fulfilling."

There is no doubt that when headteachers are allowed to get on with the job of improving teaching and learning and driving a school forward, theirs can be the best job in education.

Unfortunately, that is all too often overshadowed by the myriad difficulties facing heads - difficulties that may have prompted Irene Hogg to leave an apologetic letter saying she had "muddled through the last few years". If good heads feel this way, is it the individual or the system that is fatally flawed?

What would make headship more attractive?

Professor John Howson, director, Education Data Surveys: I suggested that deputy heads should be given temporary appointments for a maximum of five years, with an expectation that they would then move on to headship. At the moment, too many are "bed-blocking" at the deputy level.

Geoff Barton, head, King Edward VI School in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk: The level of accountability has increased. The feeling of being under the spotlight for results, discipline and safeguarding feels relentless. We should narrow the focus to the quality of teaching and learning. Hold us accountable for that.

Mick Brookes, general secretary, NAHT: Heads' workload must be addressed. At the moment, the head of a school with 2,000 pupils will be expected to do exactly the same administrative tasks as one with 56. This is in spite of the fact that the head of a small school won't have the office staff to delegate to, and will usually have a hefty teaching timetable as well.

Professor Peter Earley, director of the London Centre for Leadership in Learning, Institute of Education: The pay differential needs to be increased between deputies and headteachers. A secondary deputy head could be earning pound;70,000 to pound;80,000, but doesn't have to worry about the accountability or high stakes culture that heads face.

John Morgan, head, Conyers School in Stockton-on-Tees: Too much is made of the top job. You don't necessarily need a single charismatic figure. The job is about sharing responsibilities, highs and lows.

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today