New heads must test their mettle in ‘tough’ schools

5th February 2016 at 00:00
Pisa chief says disadvantaged areas are the best places for teachers to prove their leadership credentials

All Headteachers should have to work in “tough” schools as part of their career progression, according to one of world education’s most influential figures.

Andreas Schleicher, who oversees the Pisa (Programme for International Student Assessment) tests, has been inspired by what he has seen in Shanghai – the Chinese city that tops the Pisa rankings.

“In Shanghai, you are not going to get to the top of the teaching career without having demonstrated that you can turn around a lower-performing school,” Mr Schleicher, education director at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), told TES.

Asked if the same requirement should be a condition for headship in England, he said: “Pretty much so. I don’t know if [you should] make it in every instance, but I think that getting to the top of the career ladder requires people to demonstrate their skills in the toughest environments.”

But heads’ leaders in the UK are concerned about any suggestion that working in “challenging” schools should be a requirement for leadership candidates. They also warn that any incentives given for taking on roles in such schools will be overwhelmed by the high-stakes accountability system.

Malcolm Trobe, interim general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “We have to have a system that incentivises people to work in schools in challenging circumstances. It needs to be a carrot not a stick. It is no use someone going into a school because [the system dictates that] if they don’t go and work there, then they can’t become a headteacher.

“We want people with commitment to go into schools in challenging areas, they need to know it will not threaten their career, that they will get mentoring and training and that it will help them in their career.

“But we will not get a significant shift in this country until we change the high-stakes accountability regime.”

Mr Schleicher said that incentivising people to work in “tough” schools through career progression was better than simply telling people where to teach, as happens in some countries, such as Japan.

He said that the fact that high-flyers in the system had done this demonstrated to others that success comes through working in those types of environments. “It’s not a punishment, it’s prestigious,” he said.

In England, the government is using the National Teaching Service (see box, above), announced by education secretary Nicky Morgan in November, to set up such a link between working in challenging areas and career progression.

But Mr Schleicher told TES that the plans needed to be far more ambitious in order to have a real impact. “You will only see it is successful if you make it systemic, because teachers need to see it as real,” he said.

“Teachers need to see that taking on a tough class, taking on a tough school is really something that leads to improving the profession and improving their careers.

“If the perception [from teachers] is that ‘I am helping the government to solve a short-term skill shortage’ I don’t think you’ll get the level of support you need. [The National Teaching Service is] better than nothing, but unless you change mindsets, it’s hard to see that it will be successful.”

Russell Hobby, general secretary of the NAHT headteachers’ union, said: “We welcome the work of the National Teaching Service, which can help get the right people into schools, and support them while they are there.

“The high-stakes accountability system makes it harder for school leaders themselves to take on challenging schools. We need the right environment to support heads, not a system that creates a sink-or-swim ethos around short-term results. Until this is changed, the system works against talented leaders taking on the challenge of a poorly performing school.”

A Department for Education spokesperson said that the National Teaching Service was just part of its plan for career progression.

“We have empowered schools to lead on high-quality professional development for their teachers through the creation of a national network of teaching schools,” she said, adding that these teaching schools would ensure that “the most talented leaders are spotted”.


How the NTS pilot works

The National Teaching Service will begin with a pilot project in which up to 100 teachers will be ready to start work in primary and secondary schools in the North West this September.

By 2020, the NTS hopes to have 1,500 outstanding teachers and leaders ready to be deployed across the country.

Teachers joining the NTS will be given posts of up to three years in underperforming schools. They will also get a package of support and enhanced promotion prospects.

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