Workload: the real turn-off for would-be heads

5th May 2006 at 01:00
Much has been said about the long (even excessive?) hours worked by headteachers, deputies and assistant heads.

I retired last term after 13 years as a head. I was at my desk from 6.30am and left school some time between 5pm and 6.30pm - if there were no evening meetings or school functions. There would always be one of these per week, sometimes two or (fortunately rarely) three. I know few heads start that early, but many regularly leave work later, between 7pm and 9pm.

I also worked most of Sundays at home. I took six weeks' holiday each year - like industrial employees but unlike the common perception of teachers.

For seven of the 13 weeks, when students were nominally not in school, I was at my desk. But increasingly, students were in school during holiday periods - for revision, rehearsals, sporting events, gifted and talented workshops, exam results weeks, and so on.

No one asked or expected me to work these hours. My wholly supportive chair of governors constantly urged me to work fewer hours because he felt that I was possibly a negative influence on the staff as a whole - because they might emulate me.

What was I doing? During school hours, I was engaged in day-to-day issues: monitoring lessons; patrolling corridors; answering letters, phone calls and emails; dealing with the local education authority; seeing students and staff; attending meetings; answering complaints.

Any headteacher will testify to the difficulty of trying to write a major report during school hours. Interruptions are constant, and concentration is impossible.

I also chose to teach - perhaps an indulgence - because I always enjoyed it, even though I usually taught for only two periods out of 30. Even so, it gave me an insight into teachers' frustrations - if, for example, the reporting system was changed but the promised ICT back-up suffered glitches.

Much of each week was spent trying to appoint staff. This was a never-ending and increasingly frustrating task. National advertisements often attracted no response. As a secondary-modern head in an expensive area of the South-east, yet outside the London weighting zones, it is difficult to attract staff.

Like most secondary heads, I am in my late 50s, and therefore unlikely to have small children. Indeed, I have no children, and I am married to an understanding and equally hardworking secondary head.

However, most leadership team members are in their 30s or 40s. How do they balance the demands of family and job? With increasing difficulty, I would argue. Who attends sports days or parents' evenings (now sometimes held during the day)?

The overriding emotion for many members of leadership teams is guilt. They are either spending too little time attending to the needs of their families or supporting their colleagues.

Adult relationships can suffer, too. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the divorce rate among heads is disproportionately high. Outside school, most senior staff are short of both time and energy. Many are dog-tired, especially towards the end of a long term. All partnerships need time and energy to be successful. Lacking time and attention, it follows that the attrition rate among heads' marriages will be high.

Our age profile means we are likely to have ageing, and possibly frail, disabled or sick parents. They need our attention, too. For only-children, the burden is total, but sometimes the situation is even more fraught if we have siblings who perceive - with justification - that we are not doing our "share".

I always thought "having a vocation" referred to groups such as nuns. The definition of "vocation" is "divine call to, sense of fitness for, a career or occupation". I guess that also applies to teachers.

Headteachers' pay and conditions are coming under the spotlight this year - a situation that is not separate from the increasing paucity of candidates for this vital role in the future of education.

Those investigating this phenomenon would do well to focus not only on pay - which, in my opinion, is a secondary reason for the current lack of applications - but workload and responsibilities, which are driving even enthusiastic and dynamic candidates out of the profession.

Stephanie Bedford is a former headteacher who recently retired from Angley school, a sports college, in Cranbrook, Kent

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