Why are heads so negative?

12th May 2006 at 01:00
PAT DENISON answers your leadership questions

I have been deputy of a fairly successful primary school for four years.

When I applied for this job, I saw it as a route to headship (I had come from a hugely dynamic school whose results were not as good but whose confidence was high). I was hungry to progress to the top job.

I've just completed a term as acting head during our headteacher's absence, so I've been attending local heads' meetings and have had frequent opportunity to interact with a lot of headteachers in the area. I have to say I'm appalled at the levels of cynicism, negativity and general pessimism that I've come across within this group. Does becoming a head mean that one is stripped of everything positive? How on earth can these people ever hope to inspire young learners when their general attitude is so downbeat?

I'm seriously considering not just abandoning the idea of headship, but leaving the profession altogether. Is it just me?

You have articulated one of the factors that may be contributing to the current crisis affecting the leadership of our schools. The overall picture in the primary sector "remains one of a pitifully low number of applications" according to Professor John Howson, a director of Education Data Surveys. He cites worrying statistics of 10 or fewer applications for headships of small schools, and only slightly better than that for larger primaries. This year alone, of 1,340 advertisements, 218 had to be readvertised.

There is no doubt that many deputies feel that the financial rewards for taking on such an increased responsibility are scant. Headship is a high-risk, high-stakes job, where the ground rules are not known at the time of application. The range of accountabilities for heads is daunting, and there is a perception of the high chance of being named and shamed for things which are possibly outside their control.

I wonder if your reference to your present school as being "fairly successful" masks the thought that it may be one that the DfES wants to target as "coasting"? Certainly this new searchlight adds to the notion of headteacher as football manager, giving a disturbing literality to the old "moving goal posts" cliche. With the latest revelation by Ofsted that one in four schools meets the, as yet, undefined criteria for "coasting", the Government has unveiled new powers for local authorities to issue those schools with warning notices to make improvements in fifteen days - or else. A worrying thought for deputies considering their future.

No wonder you are finding the mood in your local area less than uplifting.

And yes, I think you are right to give deep thought as to whether you really want to expose yourself to this high-risk climate.

Let's attempt to take another look at the headteacher's role. If you were to designa job which has as its core purpose the following: the desire and means to influence in the most powerful way the lives and life chances of young people; the opportunity to develop a creative, innovative and expert workforce; a modus operandi with high degrees of autonomy and flexibility of action; and the invitation to do something morally and ecologically sound, for pay which, though not special, is not bad, what might that look like? We all know heads who are vociferously negative about their role. I suspect that unhappiness with their lot is more widespread; there is inevitably something wrong with holidays they go on, journeys that they take, meals that they eat and services that they get. They are adept at finding fault with much of what comes towards them. They can be heard blaming all and sundry for the misfortunes afflicting them.

However, I know many headteachers - and I seek their company - who talk about their jobs with passion, commitment and joy. These are what the National college calls "enchanted heads". They have unassailable integrity; they only act in the best interests of learners; they know what is unnecessary and don't waste time on it.

They themselves are learners; they know that investing in their own development is crucial to their schools' effectiveness and consciously seek opportunities to do so.

They embrace change - they create it, and realise that much government policy follows what they are already doing. They celebrate their autonomy and choose their actions from a range of options. Unafraid of accountability, and relentlessly focused on learning, their determination to raise achievement offsets potential threats. They love working with others, generous with their knowledge and ready to disclose inadequacies.

They are optimistic and fun.

Should you decide that headship really is the best job in the world, find these people. They will sustain and energise you, helping to top up your reservoir of hope: a necessity for 21st century school leadership.

Patricia Denison is head of a village primary, near Woking, Surrey. She has been in education for 25 years, 14 in headship, and is a facilitator with the National College for School Leadership's new visions programme for heads. Do you have a leadership question? Email pdenison@thevillageschool.demon.co.uk

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