'There is something profoundly wrong with education when only a tiny proportion of teachers want to be a head'

We need a radical rethink of leadership in our schools system from the education secretary down to the humble head of department

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Last month, I attended a research event about the current teacher recruitment crisis. The educational press is awash at the moment with panic about the challenges schools face trying to recruit good teachers.

The researchers had questioned a credibly substantial number of teachers and presented findings that certainly grabbed my attention, but not for the reasons they might have expected. As a researcher myself, I know that the profession in the UK and US has been consistently haemorrhaging 40 per cent of new teachers in the first five years, for decades now. No, it was a different, less attention seeking digit that caught my attention. The researchers told us that Less than 6 per cent of teachers want to be heads.

Now that made me sit up and pay attention. It hurled me back to a hilarious discussion at my last school where I sat having lunch with five older colleagues. Lunch at that school was never dull, often inspiring and always because of the conversation, not the chilli con carne. I explained that I’d worked with five head teachers. One was exceptional in every way, two would have been happy to admit they were nothing special but did the best they could and with the best intentions, and two… should never have set foot in a classroom. “You were lucky!” reverberated around the table as one senior colleague after another complained they had never worked for a head, as one of them put it, “I would have gone over the top for.”

So I’m not surprised to hear staggeringly so few teachers want the top job and thinking about why has led to me to the conclusion that if we want to see more schools delivering higher standards of education, then heads must indeed roll.

But before you start salivating at the prospect of yet another predictable diatribe about weasel politicians or attack-dog civil servants, what I mean is that headteaching, the role itself, needs to roll, as it were. It’s had its day. We need to radically rethink what it means to lead a school and I’m afraid that means something more intelligent and entrepreneurial than cutting and pasting from the Harvard Business School Manual. We’ve seen enough of that in recent years, indeed that’s one of the reasons I’m advocating a rethink.

Firstly, why is it that such a spectacular majority of teachers know, without any doubt whatsoever, that they never want to be a head? It doesn’t take anyone starting work in a school long to appreciate that schools, like all isolated organisations, come with their own special political climate. I absolutely stress, I’m not thinking of party politics here. I’ve written about that issue before. I’m referring to the inflexibly hierarchical nature of the profession that pervades every school I have ever set foot in, whether in London, Moscow, Finland or the Caribbean.

That tiny minority of teachers who want to become heads are so often those who are far more attracted by that special political climate, than by the teaching. It’s not the classroom, it’s what they achieve in the staffroom and the corridors that floats their boat. It’s who they influence, who they befriend, who they successfully manipulate that springs them chirpily out of bed every morning to carry on climbing up that inflexible hierarchy. And that weakness is indelibly embedded in the entire educational system like words through a stick of rock. It drives individuals and organisations at every level from the individual school, through school groups, multi-academy trusts, local authorities, Ofsted, RSCs, right up to central government. I’ve no objection at all to its effect at that final tier because with elected politicians you get exactly what it says on the tin. If you don't like it: ask for another tin.

It’s at every single layer below that I’ve got a problem because in the work I do, so often I’m challenged in exactly the same way every classroom teacher is, to unearth and deliver some educational benefit out of politically motivated interference. And I stress again, I’m not talking about party politics here.

I can see a forest of hands going up objecting but that’s life, that’s work, haven’t you heard of office politics? Well yes I have. Indeed not just heard of it I’ve actually lived it for many years in a number of different businesses. It doesn’t matter much who’s in and who’s out in the office, who’s sucking up to who or attempting to influence who, because every single person in the organisation is aligned with the same, elegantly simple goal, making money. When they are aligned perfectly then the customers as well as the shareholders benefit.

That is not the case in schools as the capricious reaction to the college of teaching demonstrates. Teachers can’t even agree on what their own aims are. But I suspect you’ll agree with me on one thing about the profession. Teachers, like fireman and soldiers are selfless. It’s no coincidence that my ex-colleague spontaneously opted for trench warfare as his metaphor because all these professionals view self-sacrifice as routine aspects of their work. It’s what they do.

So I would advise academies, sponsors, MAT chief executives and other interested parties to take a hard, critical look at what kind of leaders their schools need. I’m not going to pretend I have the solution sewn up and neatly embroidered with my name on it here. That has to come out of discussion between willing individuals who possess the educationally oriented vision to see as I do, that if you want to focus ruthlessly on educational reform, then you need to kill the virus that consistently prevents 94 per cent of perfectly able, skilled, professional teachers from doing their job, and kill it at source.

That’s why I think heads must roll. It’s time we started creating new kinds of leading roles and structures in schools that reflect their educational need, instead of naively pursuing pseudo-commercial, politically motivated guess work at what great leadership in today’s schools should look like.

Joe Nutt is an educational consultant and author

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