'Women remain under-represented in senior leadership roles in schools – but mentoring can help'

A mentor can empower women with the skills necessary to take on leadership roles in school, writes the president of the Girls' Schools Association

Charlotte Avery

The Early Career Framework will help experienced teachers who are mentors, writes Haili Hughes

I have spent two decades of my career focusing on how best to serve the educational needs of young women, the past 10 as a headmistress at St Mary’s School in Cambridge.

A big part of my motivation has always been the desire to empower girls, so they can grow into successful young women aspiring and achieving any career goals they want.

We want all girls to aim high, to become the next leaders in business, science and medicine, law, politics, the arts – wherever their interest lies. A big part of educating young women, alongside the exams and the qualifications, is to give them the self-belief and the skills to succeed in life.

So why is it that even within inspiring and aspirational environments such as schools, where women dominate the workforce, they are still under-represented in the senior leadership and headteacher roles?

According to Department for Education figures, 74 per cent of teachers in our schools are women, but they comprise just 62 per cent of headteachers.

In primary schools the situation is no better. Men comprise 15 per cent of the workforce, but have 28 per cent of the headteacher roles, even though, of course, 85 per cent of teaching staff are female. 

A recent report by Future Leaders suggests that there are 1,700 women "missing" from headteacher roles in schools in England.

And this comes at a time when there is a shortage of headteachers generally; one report predicts a shortage of up to 19,000 senior leaders in schools by 2022.

Headteachers play a vital role in leading and sustaining school performance, and thus in improving children’s life chances through education.

At the core of leaders’ duties is overseeing and improving teaching and learning, but as more schools become academies, headteachers increasingly need to add business and finance management skills to their portfolios – which many may find tough.

The confidence to go for the top job

I have seen many capable and highly skilled women who would make excellent school leaders. Yet time and again I have seen these women not put themselves forward for the top jobs.

There is much speculation about why this is. There is a school of thought that while men tend to apply for roles even if they have only 60 per cent of the required skills, women tend not to unless they are confident that they fit the specification 100 per cent.

Research suggests that women may avoid applying for these roles because they don’t want to waste time going for a job that they will not get – when the reality is that in the recruitment process these "requirements" are often negotiable. Where a woman might be very strong in one skill, it might outweigh her self-perceived deficiency in another area.

Additionally, being a leader can feel fraught with challenges and potential pitfalls such as: how to inspire a team; how to lead but maintain good relationships; how to tackle a difficult issue or conversation. At the heart of this is often a lack of confidence in what can be achieved.

Women need to believe that they can learn these skills and do these roles. And that is where having a mentor can be so empowering.

Recent research suggests one of the most powerful ways that we can develop future leaders is to support them as they move up the career ladder. This means providing a clear path to leadership, a culture of development and feedback, an opportunity to develop the skills and expertise they need.

It also means offering practical and emotional support, coaching and mentoring, and the opportunities to network outside of their own school.

That is why, today, the Girls’ Schools Association (GSA) and the Association of State Girls’ Schools (ASGS) are launching a leadership mentoring scheme to develop leaders in both state and independent girls’ schools.

This scheme is free for women interested in stepping up to the next level of leadership in school, whether running a project, a department, or the entire school, and it makes sense to tap into the talent pool we have. This initiative will provide coaching and support to encourage these women to reach the top.

There is an incredible line-up of mentors from the worlds of business, the justice system, public service and the Army, attracted and coordinated by Bright Field Consulting.

Mentors have been deliberately chosen from non-education spheres so they can share wide-ranging leadership expertise and skills, and they include Sandhurst’s first female lieutenant colonel, Lucy Giles, "Defence Woman of the Year 2016"; Helen Browning, chief executive of the Soil Association; Sir John Cridland, chairman, Transport for the North, and former director-general of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI); and Cathy McCullough, a leading criminal and civil barrister. 

Independent and state school teachers will work together in the scheme, with each GSA participant paired with an ASGS counterpart, so they can share experiences outside their current school context.

As well as meeting separately with their mentor for two years, each pair will work together on a local community project, paving the way for further independent-state school partnerships.

We hope by working together in this way we can encourage more women to become the senior leaders and headteachers of the future. 

Charlotte Avery is the president of the GSA and headmistress of St Mary’s School, Cambridge

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