We need a result!

22nd October 2010 at 01:00
Heads of struggling schools are under ever more pressure to raise their game or face the sack. But does this `football manager syndrome' leave them - and their staff - chasing short-term goals?

It was not the way David Martin had envisaged his career coming to an end. Instead of a retirement party and a send-off with the good wishes of colleagues ringing in his ears, he slipped away over the summer holiday before the start of the new term.

It was an inauspicious end to 32 years in education and ten years as a headteacher. "I said goodbye by letter, but it wasn't how I wanted to go," he says. "It was sad to finish a career like that."

Mr Martin had brought Northcliffe School in Doncaster out of special measures, but it was the failure to lift the school's results above the National Challenge benchmark - 30 per cent of pupils achieving five GCSEs including English and maths at grades A*-C - which convinced him that, at the age of 56, it was time to go.

Two years on, the memory still brings him out in a cold sweat, but he considers himself one of the lucky ones. At least it was his choice to leave. Whatever the pressure to fall on his sword, many heads do not have that luxury.

The combination of school inspections and a target-driven education culture has produced unprecedented pressures on heads. More than ever before, it is the person at the top who is in the firing line and must shoulder responsibility when things go wrong. According to the Association of School and College Leaders, the number of heads and deputies forced to resign has risen by 75 per cent over the past three years.

"Football manager syndrome"

So intense is this pressure that it has been dubbed "football manager syndrome"- the demand for instant results that leaves heads just one poor result away from their P45. Unlike football managers, heads also have to contend with moving goalposts: Mr Martin brought his school out of special measures only to be faced with a new target in the shape of the National Challenge.

"It is the modern equivalent of being put into the stocks and having rotten fruit thrown at you," says Mick Brookes, former general secretary of heads' union the NAHT. "When heads are removed from post, the sense of shame and guilt can be appalling."

Mr Brookes knows one head who could barely show his face around town after he was sacked following a critical Ofsted inspection. If he went anywhere near his old school he would hide under a rug in the back of the car.

"To end a career in that way is unforgivable," Mr Brookes adds. "No one should be hounded out of their job, especially heads who are fighting against the odds to raise standards. It's not a dignified exit."

One game from dismissal

The comparison with football managers is a chilling one. But the irony is that had the demand for immediate success been placed on football managers 20 years ago, the most successful manager in the modern game would be nothing more than a footnote in his club's history. Sir Alex Ferguson is reported to have been one game from dismissal three years into his career with Manchester United, but a narrow FA Cup victory gave him breathing space. The club's board of directors stuck by him and have since been rewarded with 11 Premier League titles.

But a head does not even have to have a bad season to face losing their job. An inspection at the wrong time can be enough. "Everyone knows a head who has said at some point, `If Ofsted turned up today, it would be a disaster,'" says Mr Brookes. "They may just be temporary difficulties, but heads have lost their job for less."

The Manchester United directors kept faith with Sir Alex partly as a result of the long-term rebuilding work he carried out in his early days at the club. Few managers now are afforded such luxury. Few headteachers either.

Bill Ball was credited with making solid improvements at New Manton Primary in Worksop, a former pit town in Nottinghamshire. The school was once ranked as the worst primary in England by results, but inspectors rated Mr Ball's leadership as "excellent" in 2003, two years after his arrival.

But after initial improvements, results flatlined. The local MP got involved, criticising the school's under-performance. Faced with overwhelming pressure, Mr Ball resigned. However, when the school's key stage 2 results were published a few months later they seemed to vindicate his leadership. Results in English, maths and science had almost doubled.

At nearby Haydn Primary in Nottingham, head Jim Green was praised in an Ofsted report that remarked on "a good school with very good teaching and leadership" in 2000. A few years later the school was placed in special measures. Mr Green resigned in 2006. That summer, the results were exceptional, just as Mr Green had forecast. Unfortunately, they came too late to save his job.

An Ofsted report published last year documented 12 outstanding secondary schools that have excelled against the odds. All were led by heads who have been in position for at least five years; many for ten years or more.

Demands for instant success

But patiently laying the foundations for future success is out of kilter with an approach that demands instant success. Education Secretary Michael Gove told the London Evening Standard earlier this year that heads would be given a year to turn around failing schools or face the sack. Schools in special measures for 12 months or more would be converted into academies under new leadership, he said. But a year is not enough to embed changes, argues John Morgan, president of heads' union the ASCL and head of Conyers School in Yarm, Stockton-on-Tees. "If you do turn around a school in that amount of time, it will be a false turnaround," he says.

"You need to get the right middle leaders on board and invest in staff development. It takes four or five years to really change the culture of a school in a long-term, meaningful way. Anything short of that will be unsustainable."

But impatience at the pace of change is understandable when children's futures are at stake, says Joan McVittie, head of Woodside High in Haringey, north London. A promise that standards will be higher in five years' time is no good to a child who will have left school by then, she says.

"I'm not in favour of heads being hounded out of their job, but for the children's sake things need to improve quickly," she argues.

When Mrs McVittie arrived at Woodside in 2006 it was languishing in special measures. She gave herself just a year to turn it around. GCSE results have improved by almost 20 per cent a year under her leadership.

"When a head arrives, they will only have one year to boost Year 11 results, but with each year it will become easier," she says. While a total transformation within a year is unrealistic, she says it is long enough to know if the school is heading in the right direction.

"As long as governors are challenging, supportive and open with the head, I think it is fair to expect some sustainable improvements fairly quickly," she says.

But even before Mr Gove's hard-line stance, heads of schools in challenging circumstances rarely had the chance to see improvements through. Most schools that go into special measures come out of the category with a different headteacher.

Samantha Rogers* was a casualty of this approach. She became headteacher of a secondary school in the north of England in 1992 and guided it through two good Ofsted inspections. But in 2005 the school was plunged into special measures.

It was totally unexpected," says Ms Rogers. "Our results had improved, but we had an issue with value-added (measures). It was pretty devastating, but I was determined I would stay and turn the situation around."

The local authority did not ask her to leave, but neither did it offer her a ringing endorsement. Despite it being a "bumpy road", the school was elevated to "notice to improve" within two years - a necessary stepping stone on the road to satisfactory.

But when the school missed its GCSE targets the governing body started to get worried. Despite showing the governors evidence that progress was being made and short-term targets met, Ms Rogers believes their minds were set: the head should go.

"I ultimately felt pushed out"

Although she was convinced the school would emerge from a failing category the following year, she opted to leave early. "I was 57 and I was very tired," she says. "I would have stayed on until I was 60, but I was under increasing pressure from the governing body. I ultimately felt pushed out. It was very demoralising, not just for me but for the senior management team and staff as well. We were all working our hearts out and delivering all this evidence, but we weren't receiving any sort of strong encouragement in return."

She turned to the local authority for help. Although it offered resources and advice, she did not feel this was enough.

"Was the local authority fundamentally supportive of me? No. Were they personally supportive of me? No," she says. "I couldn't trust them or confide in them at all. It was clear they held me to account and could easily use what I said against me."

She ended up leaving in the summer of 2007 feeling her job was half-done. The following year, as she had predicted, the school came out of notice to improve. But she bears no malice towards her governors. She believes their reaction was understandable in the face of the Ofsted judgment. But she does harbour resentment over the inspection process. "It is a very blunt and ineffectual instrument," Ms Rogers says.

"It publicly pillories people who are trying to do their very best, as opposed to looking at what needs to be done to turn the situation around. It's no surprise that heads see no alternative but to leave."

Ofsted acknowledges that it puts great emphasis on school leadership and sees a strong correlation between leadership and a school's overall effectiveness. In 80 per cent of inspections carried out over the first two terms of last year, leadership and the school as a whole were judged to be in the same category.

It is rare for leadership to be praised if the overall judgment is "satisfactory". In only 25 per cent of schools judged satisfactory was leadership given a "good" grade. None were "outstanding".

But an Ofsted spokesman insists a judgment about leadership and management should not be taken too personally by the head. "The role of the headteacher is critical," he says. "But it is important to recognise that the overarching judgment for leadership and management is about the effectiveness of leaders and managers at all levels, rather than a judgment solely about a headteacher's personal leadership."

However, when George Green's Community School in Tower Hamlets, east London, was given a notice to improve in 2008, headteacher Kenny Frederick took it very personally.

"When you have been at the helm for 11 years there is nobody you can blame but yourself, and I did," she says. She planned to resign, but after talking it through with her leadership team she opted to stay on. "I decided that it would be a very selfish act to go," she says. "It might make me feel better but would not do the school any good."

Her governors and the local authority stood by her, but it underlines the fact that a head's reputation is only as good as the last set of results or the last Ofsted inspection. When Ms Frederick arrived at George Green's she was lauded for driving up standards.

But she was also held responsible for overseeing its decline a decade later. "Now we are on the up again, no doubt I will be seen as the hero once more," she says.

A quick change does not always mean a quick fix

Schools go through cycles of good and bad times, she adds. The danger of cutting off heads during less buoyant periods is that the school will lose vital insider knowledge and continuity. A quick change does not always mean a quick fix.

"I think we need to get rid of the term `turning around a school' and `hero headteacher'," says Ms Frederick.

"What many seemingly successful heads do is stay for about four or five years, `turn a school around' by a series of unsustainable measures and then move on to the next school and the next, before getting a knighthood. Many of these schools have sunk once the hero head has gone - often taking many of their senior staff with them."

Those who do decide to stay on in struggling schools are often playing Russian roulette with their career. In 2005 Sarah Dugdale* took over a school that was failing in all but name. She had just under two years to turn around a legacy of underperformance but was crippled by a budget deficit, falling rolls and what she describes as inadequate staff. The school was given notice to improve - a good result in the circumstances - and made healthy improvements by the time of its next monitoring visit.

"The pressure to build Rome in a day is incredible"

But poor English results plunged the school into special measures in January last year. Later in the year it recorded its best-ever results, but by then it was too late: the decision had been made to turn it into an academy. "The pressure to build Rome in a day is incredible," says Ms Dugdale. "Unless you have the right people in place, it is very hard to change things overnight."

The school reopened under new leadership this term. "The Government always wants new blood when a school in a category (inadequate) becomes an academy," Ms Dugdale adds. "It's always deemed to be the head's fault, even though Ofsted insisted I just needed time and the capacity to turn it around."

Most heads recognise that it is only fair that they be held accountable for what is within their control. But to some extent schools are also at the mercy of circumstances in the communities they serve. While Ofsted notes that 10 per cent of schools in deprived areas are graded outstanding, a report released by the NUT last year found that two-thirds of schools in special measures had an above-average proportion of pupils on free schools meals and with special educational needs.

Marius Frank, former head of Bedminster Down School in Bristol, argues that raw results are now so important to schools - and heads who want to keep their jobs - that principles and values are often sacrificed. He was under pressure to introduce the BTEC curriculum as a way of scoring a rapid improvement in exam results.

He stuck to his guns and was vindicated by subsequent results, but it was a sticky time. "A head may be forced by an overly ambitious sponsor or an unrealistic governing body to introduce (vocational) qualifications to boost outcomes at the expense of a balanced and rich curriculum for young people," says Mr Frank, who left the school - voluntarily - over the summer. "In such a climate, sticking to your principles could get you sacked, pure and simple," he says.

Such job insecurity will inevitably take its toll - both on individual heads and on the profession as a whole. It does nothing to make headship appealing, especially in deprived communities where good leadership is in short supply, says Mr Morgan.

"Being a head has gone from being the safest position in a school to being the least safe," he says. "Fewer people are choosing to become heads as it is, but this extra pressure and job insecurity will not help address the headteacher shortage."

For Mr Martin, it is now too late. He is doing some consultancy work, but he misses life at the chalk face. "I chose to work in a challenging school because I thought I could make a difference," he says. "Now I realise if you do choose a school like that, you're just one inspection away from losing your job."

He believes the polarisation between success and failure has over- simplified the challenges facing schools. "It is incredibly complex and all sorts of factors affect the performance of a school," he says.

"Of course heads and others should be accountable for what they do, but it is much too easy to make the head a scapegoat and assume that all problems will be solved by their departure."

* Names have been changed.

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