A flagship £14 million government scheme to recruit the “best and brightest” school leaders to turn around the country’s toughest schools missed its recruitment target by over two thirds.

An evaluation of the government’s Talented Leaders programme, launched in 2014, found just 32 leaders of the promised 100 were actually recruited to struggling schools.

Furthermore, the government-commissioned review found just 21 of the heads ended up staying in their schools for the expected three years.

The study found “a range of challenges”  thwarted the programme, which aimed to place “top-performing heads” in schools facing the “toughest challenges”, mostly in rural, coastal or deprived areas that struggled to recruit “a great leader”.

That included not attracting enough applicants who were existing heads willing to relocate. More than half of those recruited were previously deputy heads.

Schools also shunned the scheme with “concerns about the loss of control over who would be recruited as a headteacher of their school”.

Instead, a “significant proportion” of Talented Leaders ended up applying directly for a headship position in a school, rather than being matched to one that had already signed-up to be part of the programme.

“Successful Talented Leaders were primarily motivated to apply to the programme for altruistic reasons, though many also saw this as an opportunity for career development,” the report stated.

“Contribution to relocation costs was not considered influential in encouraging matched Talented Leaders to join the programme (and many did not relocate).”

Leaders taking up a post at least 50 miles away from where they lived could access a relocation package of up to £15,000. But the report found this was “not considered influential in encouraging matched Talented Leaders to join the programme (and many did not relocate)”.

Research from the final year of the programme showed just six leaders planned to stay beyond the three-year commitment.

“Of those who had already moved on or planned to leave, none stated that they had only envisaged that it would be a three-year commitment when starting at their school,” the report added.

“Reasons for leaving varied but included personal circumstance and wanting a new challenge. In most schools they had already secured a replacement head. Those who were staying at their school highlighted they wanted to ‘finish the job’ and ensure changes were sustained.”

Heads who were given relocation costs and moved before the three-year mark had to pay “all or part” of the cash back.

But there were some positives of the scheme, run by the Future Leaders Trust, which later became Ambition Institute.

“The impact on schools was judged as positive by mentors, staff and Talented Leaders across the four key areas the programme was designed to address: leadership of school culture, leadership of school, leadership of people, and leadership of teaching and learning.

“Improvements in staff morale and job satisfaction were also reported. However, even in schools where all required major changes had been made there was an acknowledgement that the school was still on an improvement journey.”

The “package of support” offered through the programme was also “highly influential” in recruiting leaders. The support included £50,000 to build “sustainable leadership capacity” in a school, plus £15,000 for continued development of leaders and access to a mentor.

Hilary Spencer, chief executive of Ambition, said the biggest challenge was persuading heads to relocate to rural, coastal and isolated areas. It was “a challenge we know still exists”, she said.
As the numbers were “smaller than envisaged”, the scheme cost “less than 40%” of the £14 million, Spencer added.