Blame culture fuels deputies’ reluctance to take on top job
Almost two-thirds of deputies and assistants do not want to become headteachers or have major reservations about the role – and the pressure of a high-stakes accountability system is to blame, research shared with TES reveals.
But the majority of deputies and assistants say they would be more inclined to become leaders if there was an assurance that Ofsted would not judge them in their first year or hold them accountable for the past performance of the school, according to a survey by NAHT, the headteachers’ union.
The poll, of nearly 800 deputy and assistant heads, shows that almost a quarter who are hesitant about becoming headteachers say they are confident that they could perform as school leaders but that headship simply does not appeal to them.
“You need to ‘sell your soul’ to be a head and I want to be able to conduct as normal a life as possible away from school,” one primary assistant headteacher from Kent said. “I don’t feel that there is enough freedom to run a school as best fits the community it serves. The government is setting us up to fail with ridiculous targets for performance as part of the wider agenda towards academies.”
The lack of willingness from able leaders to take up headship is a major concern to the NAHT in light of the national shortage of headteachers – and the association predicts it will only get worse. Already this year, schools have had to advertise for headteachers as much as three times, the union says.
The survey found that just a third of deputies and assistants had an aspiration to take on the top job, while four in 10 had no intention of moving roles and a quarter were unsure.
Russell Hobby, general secretary of the NAHT, said: “The workload, the risk and the culture of blame that surrounds school leadership make up a toxic fog that must be lifted. The fault lies with the government’s obsession with high-stakes accountability.”
The NAHT has called on Ofsted to address the “punitive” accountability framework deterring able deputy and assistant heads from headship – and has urged the watchdog to give all leaders one year before inspection, after 58 per cent of deputies said that this would make the role more attractive.
James Bowen, director of NAHT Edge, which represents middle leaders in schools, said: “It would be nice if, regardless of the position that you come into the school, that you are given at least a year to work on things. It would be more encouraging.
“Increasingly now we are hearing of headteachers losing their jobs after a bad Ofsted rating. Regional school commissioners are on these schools much quicker now.
“It is this high-stakes accountability and the risk that you could lose your job if the results are not good that is the number one concern.”
More positively, the survey found that 56 per cent of assistant headteachers said shadowing a headteacher would encourage them to consider the role. One respondent said she was “put off” from applying for headship at schools in her local authority after she failed to receive assurances that she would be supported if she were to take up the role.
And nearly a third taking part in the survey noted a drop in their continuous professional development over the past year. Mr Bowen suggested that putting this right could help to boost the numbers considering headship.
“They want to know they‘ve had the best preparation for headship,” he said. “It can make a big difference.”
Mr Hobby said: “We must do all we can to provide attractive opportunities for deputies, assistants and vice-principals.” The current situation “is just not going to give us the number of headteachers we will need in the future”, he added.
An Ofsted spokesperson said: “If there has been a recent change of leadership at a school, the report will reference this fact and note where it is leading to improvements.
“Therefore, our reports make it clear that the school’s past performance is not attributable to headteachers new in post.”
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “We are investing millions in programmes to support and develop top teachers into the leaders of tomorrow and working with the sector to address their concerns over workload.”
‘Fearful of Ofsted’
Bev Sheppard, deputy headteacher at the Deans Primary School, in Swinton, said that the overwhelming majority of deputies and assistants she has spoken to have been put off headship by the “high blame culture” and “uncertainty” facing school leaders.
Ms Sheppard, who is also the chair of the NAHT’s deputy and assistant committee, said: “It’s very rare to find someone who would say, ‘Yes I want to be a head – and soon.’ There could be a crisis in the future in attracting high-quality professionals into the job; it’s a shame as there are so many fantastic deputies and assistants that could become headteachers tomorrow.”
She added: “So many people are fearful of Ofsted and what might happen to them when they don’t have as much support as they need. It is like you have one chance or you’re out. You are threatened with this on a daily basis.”
But Ms Sheppard said that “unreachable” targets and standards, the government’s frequent changes to curriculum and assessment and their untimely publications were also deterring good deputies from going for headship. “The age of the superhead has gone,” she said.
“Now all the heads have to be superheads to keep their heads above the water and deal with the sheer volume of workload.
“It will only get better if Ofsted and the government work with the unions to listen to the profession.
“You need time to settle in and make a real impact, which can take a couple of years.”