'Turbulent, lonely and isolated' - why heads need help

By Amy Gibbons on 03 March 2020

School leaders carry an 'emotional weight' that 'erodes your resilience over time' - but report suggests professional coaching could provide a solution

The government is being urged to fund professional coaching for "isolated" and "lonely" headteachers, as a new report reveals significant emotional demands are contributing to an "erosion of resilience" in the profession.

Heads are weighed down by a mixture of "overwhelming" demands; high levels of pressure and professional scrutiny; diminishing school budgets; and little opportunity to reflect on decisions or plan ahead, according to the report by CollectivED, a research and practice centre at Leeds Beckett University (LBU).

The researchers conducted a number of interviews, focus group sessions and questionnaires, in which some heads described their roles as "difficult", "turbulent", "lonely" and "isolated" – and one said the job felt like "a millstone round my neck".


Related: Meet headteachers to stop exodus, MP tells Gibb

Reporter's take: Accountability is a headache for heads

Advice: Three steps I am taking to reduce my workload in 2020


One former head said they felt "extreme isolation and loneliness" in the role, and "always had a sense that I was going to be judged".

And another headteacher said he had carried an “emotional weight, which unless you manage it, erodes your resilience over time”.

He said it is “rarely recognised that, during any day, headteachers have hundreds of interactions and that most often people want something or to tell you about a problem in their lives”.

When he left one school, the head said he realised “how much of peoples’ lives you carry, and every time you see a child in the playground you know something about that family”.

The report found: "Headteachers have to deal with complexity in terms of their pupils, their staff and the wider community, with a decline in other public services being noted as negatively impacting on some families.

"They also face significant pressures from the system, with the most common being referred to as pressures of Ofsted and of financial decisions at a time of diminishing school budgets.

"Another key theme emerging from headteacher interview responses was that they tend to experience being a headteacher as a lonely job that leaves them feeling isolated."

The researchers carried out the interviews as part of an evaluation of a year-long coaching programme designed for school leaders.

They found that the project, delivered by Integrity Coaching and funded by the NEU teaching union, helped heads cope with their demanding roles, which were having a significant effect on their wellbeing, work-life balance and capacity to drive school improvement.

The coaching involved six two-hour sessions for each headteacher, which were found to have a positive impact on their self-belief and confidence.

"Coaching also helped to address the feelings of isolation commonly felt by headteachers. These gains had a reciprocal benefit in managing the demands of the job and reducing the 'erosion of resilience’," the report said.

"There is evidence that this coaching programme had a positive impact on retention for headteachers at risk of leaving."

The report called on the government to develop policy to "support retention and efficacy of headteachers", which "includes an offer of professional, external coaching".

It said this should be matched with "an appropriate method of funding" that can be made available to individual headteachers.

Principal researcher Professor Rachel Lofthouse said: "Headteachers give so much of themselves to support teachers and to make a positive impact on children and young people, and yet they experience some of the highest levels of stress in the system.

"At a time when the challenges in the education system are becoming acute, it is essential that we find approaches which support school leaders and allow them to contribute to sustainable school cultures."

A Department for Education spokesperson said: "We are already taking action in this area in order to strengthen work-life balance and wellbeing for teachers and school leaders.

"This includes reducing workload, supporting early career school teachers, promoting flexible working and tackling accountability pressures, as well as supporting schools to deal with behaviour management."