I loved being a headteacher. I did it for 16 years and rarely went into school in the morning without a spring in my step. I observed without difficulty one of the tenets of headship – that one should keep a smile on one’s face almost all the time – and I regarded it as an immense privilege to have a job in which I could influence the lives of so many young people. On the whole, the school did the ordinary things well, but it did extraordinary things too. The job satisfaction in headship is watching young people flourish and staff teach well and do great things. Good heads water the (human) plants and watch them grow and I tried to do that. In what other job, I would ask myself, could I dream my dreams and then go into work the next morning and put them into action?
The school was, and remains, a great comprehensive school where young people from all backgrounds are helped to use their talents to the full. Yet, when I left the school in 1998, there were only a dozen applicants for my job.
The shortage of applicants for school headships is nothing new. Certain types of school, such as faith schools, have long had a dearth of applications. Small, rural schools can consider themselves fortunate if they have two or three applicants. Challenging schools find it hard to attract heads, who see working in such schools as a potentially career threatening move. Excellent schools often get very small fields for headships, with people seeing that the most recent inspection was grade 1 and recognising that the frequently changing accountability system means that the only way is down.
Last week’s Future Leaders Trust report, Heads Up, analysed the problem well, noting a decline in positive perceptions about headship since a National College survey in 2009. Reasons cited for the negative attitude towards headship included high levels of stress and workload, associated with the breadth of accountability and responsibility in the role. It is a tougher job than when I did it.
In about 2005 I started to chart the alarming increase in the number of heads losing their job, an increase that has continued as the accountability regime has bitten broader and deeper. A critical factor in the headship shortage is that increased vulnerability must now be added to increased responsibility and accountability.
In their readable and perceptive blogs, Geoff Barton cited the need to keep the fun in headship and Robert Hill mourned the loss of the National College for School Leadership, which had had such a positive effect on system and individual thinking on leading schools, but he applauded the growing trend for new routes into headship. These new routes provide important preparation for headship and it is significant that those who are thrust into acting headteacher roles, for whatever reason, generally acquire a taste for the job and are more likely to apply.
Geoff Barton mentioned the "woeful managerialism of government", of which the latest examples are the new duties on secondary schools concerning information about apprenticeships and local colleges. It is easy to become ground down by the multiple responsibilities of headship, but heads should always try to balance that with the positive side of the job and take every opportunity to put their dreams into action.
The English Baccalaureate will have a ghastly narrowing effect on the post-14 curriculum, but that doesn’t mean that all opportunity for curriculum development is lost to government prescription. If one defines the curriculum as "everything that happens in school", there are still immense opportunities to do interesting and creative things that will benefit the school experience for every child.
The Ofsted framework may appear to act as a stranglehold on school autonomy, but creative self-evaluation and peer review can still ensure that accountability is used positively to evaluate the achievement of the wider aims of the school.
And there are many other areas of school life in which schools do not have to do what they are told, but can do what they believe to be right for their students.
So let us all, with Geoff Barton, celebrate "the rollercoaster ride of joy alongside the gnawing insecurities of whether we are up to the job", recognise the accountabilities and responsibilities of headship alongside the opportunities it brings, keep a smile on our faces, and encourage potential future heads to go for it. We can’t stop governments from governing hyperactively and inspection regimes from scrutinising intrusively, but we can accentuate the positive and demonstrate the joy of headship. Then, perhaps, more of our colleagues will want to become heads.
John Dunford is chair of Whole Education, a former secondary head, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders and national pupil premium champion
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