Why it will take decades to get a fair number of female heads

17th June 2016 at 00:00
Proportion of secondary heads who are women matches proportion of teachers in less than 5% of authorities

Secondary schools are staffed mostly by women, but led mostly by men. New research shows that the number of female heads is increasing – but at a “painfully slow” rate.

A survey of every state-secondary head in England found that the proportion who are women has risen from 25 per cent to 38 per cent in the past 14 years.

Dr Kay Fuller, associate professor of educational leadership at the University of Nottingham, who carried out the research, warns: “At that rate of progress, it will take until 2040 to have the same proportion of women headteachers as women teachers in secondary schools.” There are only seven local authority areas in which the proportion of women leaders matches the proportion of women teachers. There are nine where fewer than 20 per cent of secondary heads are women. But looking at how the numbers differ between authorities may provide some clues as to what can be done to improve women’s chances of making it into top jobs.

Dr Fuller points out that some of the authorities with the lowest and highest proportions of women heads are next to each other – such as Bath and north-east Somerset (15.4 per cent) and Bristol (68.2 per cent).

She suggests that this could be because women are choosing to apply for jobs in a local authority that has a reputation for supporting women. “We have been especially successful at attracting strong, female headteachers to the city,” Claire Hiscott, Bristol City Council’s cabinet member for education, says.

“We have done this by encouraging governors to take a fresh look at leadership to find the best people for the job. Where other cities have cut governor training, we have invested in this area as it’s the governors who appoint our city’s headteachers.”

The result is that 15 of Bristol’s 22 state secondaries are led by women. Ms Hiscott says that there is now a virtuous circle, with heads creating further opportunities for women through family-friendly policies such as the flexibility to work from home.

Bucking the trend

Kate Chhatwal, chief programme officer for Future Leaders, a school leadership training provider, says: “It is really helpful to know if there are areas of the country bucking the national trend.

“It gives us an opportunity to go and identify what it is that’s working in those areas and see whether it can be replicated elsewhere.”

It is also helpful to know about areas where far fewer women heads are employed. In Sandwell in the West Midlands, just three of the district’s 18 state secondaries are led by women. That amounts to just 16.7 per cent and compares poorly with the 46.9 per cent figure in neighbouring Birmingham.

Sandwell’s cabinet member for children’s services, Simon Hackett, insists appointments were fair in the five non-academy secondaries it has direct responsibility for. He notes: “There are actually far fewer applications from females for head and principal posts which will, in turn, affect the employment ratio.”

In authorities with very small numbers of schools, any disparity is magnified. In Kensington and Chelsea, there are no women leading secondary schools. But the London borough only has six schools, and it points out that its sixth-form college is led by a woman. Ms Chhatwal says that the study underlines the importance of not jumping to conclusions. “This research enables us to ask a set of questions rather than rush to judgement about different areas,” she says. But what can be done to help women make the move into headship?

Dr Fuller says that explicit initiatives to make those recruiting headteachers more conscious of the need for equity can help. Appointments can fall foul of an unconscious bias about what kind of person is needed to impose discipline on a challenging secondary school – with “a strong man” being favoured, she says.

There is also a growing awareness of the need to support women who absorb this culture and may feel less confident about their abilities and more risk-averse than men.

“Headship is a leap into the unknown,” says Jill Berry, a leadership consultant. “It is a high-risk job. If things go pear-shaped, a lot of governing bodies will think, ‘Let’s change the person at the top.’”

She argues that some women – and, indeed, some men – don’t want to be headteachers for positive reasons. But she is concerned about women who say that they don’t want to do the job when, in fact, they just lack self-belief.

“There are perceptions around confidence,” says Ms Berry. “I’m very fond of the Robert Quinn [a leadership expert] saying, ‘You build the bridge as you walk on it.’ I know an awful lot of women who will say, ‘I’m not ready yet,’ but you have to recognise that you will learn the job by doing it. I think men are better at being willing to take that leap.”

She adds: “I think people who line-manage women do need to be very alert to spotting potential. A good leader can see potential in a person who can’t see it in themselves.”


The diversity problem in leadership: page 40

‘The stereotype of having a father figure’

Keziah Featherstone, head of Bridge Learning Campus in Bristol, who relocated to the area 18 months ago, believes that the city’s increase in female heads was not a deliberate policy.

It happened as a by-product of governing bodies looking for leaders with a “fresh” approach to improve their schools, she says. Ms Featherstone (pictured) argues that there are still many barriers facing women with the potential to be good school leaders.

“If leadership is reshaped away from what Sir Michael Wilshaw has called the need for ‘battleaxes’, then I think that the gender balance can even out,” she says. “However, I am also aware of many governing bodies who really want someone quite traditionally authoritarian.

“And although that doesn’t mean it’s effective, and women can certainly be that, too, it certainly plays a part in the recruitment business. It plays to a stereotype about having a father figure at the head of the table. But it is simply not the way the real world works. It’s a myth.

“On top of that, you still have women being asked at interview what their birth control plans are, you have women wishing to work part-time due to family commitments and some who are brilliant but lack confidence or don’t fit into some laddish teams and so think it isn’t for them. In some places, things need to change a great deal.”

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