‘There are lows, of course, but you’ve got to try headship to know how good it can be’

Increasingly people are choosing not to step into school leadership, but its many trials and tribulations are matched by “spine-tingling delight”, says one candidate to be ASCL general secretary

Geoff Barton

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Why do so few of senior teachers want to take the next step of becoming a headteacher? After all, we’ve never needed them more. There is a drought in the supply of school leaders – with many leaving headship sooner than they should. Some governing bodies are then advertising up to seven times to find a replacement, leaving some without a permanent head for three years.

So what is it about the role of headteacher that – from the outside – appears so daunting or undoable?

I have been a high school head for almost fifteen years, and before that a deputy for five. When someone asks me how being a head compares with senior leadership in other organisations, I cannot answer. How could I? I think of that Yiddish proverb: “To a worm in horseradish, the world tastes horseradish”. Truly, after all these years immersed in educational leadership, my world tastes horseradish. It’s what I know, what I do.

And one thing I know about headship is that nothing in my training as deputy prepared me for the startling visibility of the position, the way we feel like public property, permanently on show in school and in the community.

Sometimes this is enjoyable enough. I now accept I can never get from supermarket car park to checkout and back without being stopped by parents past, present or pending. This is almost always positive feedback.

The venomous stuff is reserved for late-night emails, comments on websites, or occasional aggressive parents turning up at reception demanding to see you. Inevitably they will have taken the side of their child, whatever the misdemeanor and whatever the evidence.

Embodiment of values

We are the visible embodiment of our school’s values. In my first week as head I gave an assembly to 300 Year 11 students. I announced a few minor changes of policy. I was booed, loudly and at length. I felt humiliated. It was the gaze of the onlooking staff that unnerved me most. Had my authority been publicly shredded there and then?

Headship feels an all-encompassing job. We require the credibility of being a good teacher to earn the respect of our colleagues in a way that a hospital manager doesn’t need to have done surgery. We are required to speak well in public, to have knowledge of curriculum and assessment matters, to set budgets and tackle disciplinary issues. Our role means that we will attend governors’ meetings and other events several nights a week, sometimes until late.

Our close personal identification with the schools we lead is where our vulnerability comes from. If there’s too much litter blowing around the site, I remind myself that it’s really not my fault. But if there’s a school trip out, I still won’t sleep well. If something goes wrong, it will be on my watch. Or if a member of staff posts something inappropriate on social media, I know I’ll be the one defending our reputation.

Then of course if our school undergoes a bad Ofsted inspection – deserved or not - it’s impossible not to see it as the verdict as not just on our leadership, but on our status as a human being.

None of this is to whinge.

Ours is an extraordinary and privileged role. But it’s one that entails never-ending emotional investment of our own selves in shaping, endlessly fretting about, and attempting to hold together together every aspect of what our school stands for and what our community expects from it.

Benefits of headship

And the benefits?

Seeing the impact of what you do – bringing on new staff and watching them grow, sensing the way your community (mostly) respects you and looks to you for moral purpose. There’s the satisfaction also of seeing an idea, a wheeze hatched in a meeting in an office one afternoon, come to fruition. Then there are those endless on-the-hoof conversations with students, with caretakers, with catering staff as well as with teachers – all reaffirming the sense of a community that we inhabit and help to unite.

There’s the laughter. I couldn’t work in a school where the joy was squeezed out. If students suggest yet another silly charity dress-up day, I’ll always say yes. Then I’ll spend far too long hunting down a costume for myself.

As head, I spend my Friday afternoons walking round our school. I drop in on lessons. I get the spine-tingling delight of watching great teachers take something complicated and make it simpler but not too simple. I ground myself in what – as a rookie English teacher in Leeds all those years back – I came into teaching for.

And I remind myself that in our schools and academies and colleges, we aren’t Toyota or Tesco, but a living and breathing web of human relationships. If we are true to our young people, we’ll give them the space to immerse themselves in real learning, learning that involves mistakes, frustrations and false starts.

This is some of what my role as headteacher gives me, and what I’ll miss when I finally hand the school on to someone else.

However, if I’ve done my job properly, I’ll make sure I communicate to the next generation of potential school leaders that headship isn’t the mysterious swirling whirlpool of misery that it can too often be portrayed as. It has its punishing, relentless moments, of course.

But it has deep indisputable satisfactions too, which, if I weren’t a worm immersed in so much horseradish, I’d probably savour more, lifting my head above the surface, and saying to future headteachers: ‘You should try this. You should definitely try this.’

Geoff Barton is headteacher of King Edward VI School, a comprehensive school of 1650 students in Suffolk, and is a candidate to be general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders

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