Sleepless nights caused by not enough staff to cover classes has been the final straw for Evelyn Forde. After 23 years in schools – nine as a headteacher – she’s decided to quit.
The school she has led for the past seven years, Copthall Academy for girls in a leafy part of north London, has a ‘good’ Ofsted rating and is in the top 3 per cent of schools nationwide for Progress 8.
But Forde recalls her sense of despair recently when eight supply staff had to be brought in, not all of whom were qualified to teach. Her email inbox that day received just one job application from a prospective teacher.
“It keeps me up at night. When things are out of your control it becomes very stressful. I just thought, ’I don’t think I can do this anymore’.”
She is worried “people might think I’m running away”, but believes she’s a living example of “what happens when you don’t invest in education”.
She is not alone. The 2022 Teacher Wellbeing Index found more than a third of senior leaders want to leave.
The 57 year-old Forde, who regularly speaks to other heads in her role as president of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), warns there are many other “good leaders” considering drawing down their pension money early.
SchoolDash analysis found headteacher turnover has leapt by more than a third since before the pandemic, with one in ten schools welcoming a new head in September last year.
Forde is currently chairing Public First’s Commission on Teacher Retention, and believes it has “really good data” to present to ministers on why so many teachers are quitting.
Her involvement is, she admits, “ironic”, given her own plight.
So what next? Has her resignation anything to do with an upcoming vacancy for a general secretary at ASCL. She hints that when she leaves Copthall in five months, replacing Geoff Barton may be in her sights.
“Big role and big shoes to fill… I don’t want to be a head anymore, or teaching. I think I’ve got more to give, and I just need to find what that is.”
Whatever her plans, she is determined to stay in the sector. “I’d like to be the voice of change. I’d like to work with people in the sector to try and get this voice of change for recruitment retention, mental health and well being.
The issue is here and now
Copthall, which has 58 teaching staff, currently employs three maths supply teachers and an unqualified supply teacher across drama, art and geography because “it’s all I’ve got”.
She admits having that many supply staff can “destabilise” a school because “with all the will in the world, they are not as invested in its culture and ethos”.
But it wasn’t always that way. She arrived at the school in 2016 – then ‘requires improvement’ before the 2018 ‘good’ rating. It “wasn’t that hard to recruit” until 2020.
Now, without the “pipeline of new talent coming through” – the DfE missed its target for recruitment of new secondary school teachers by 41 per cent this year – it is hard, she says, to “see the end in sight”.
While she acknowledges that falling rolls might mean less demand for teachers in two to three years, “the issue is here and now. You’ve got young people sitting public exams. We’re talking about their future chances.”
So what can be done? Forde wants the DfE to “listen to the foot soldiers on the ground” and “do more to respect” teachers.
While the department needs to recognise pay is not rising fast enough, she also blames long hours.
She even suggests that moving to a four-day teaching week, as has been adopted in some rural areas of the US, would leave teachers a day for planning and could help make teaching “an attractive profession that people will come and stay”.
The legacy of the pandemic
Forde says other heads share her sense that the pandemic’s legacy is greater than has yet been properly realised; Covid “shifted the dynamics in schools” and has left young people with a sense of “hopelessness”.
“They look at our leaders … and you’ve got bullying and corruption. Then we’re saying, particularly to girls, ‘come on, we’ve got to smash that glass ceiling’. Sometimes I think they just feel ‘well, what’s the point?’”
She believes the Covid legacy of mental health challenges and recruitment pressures mean headships are “not the same” as to what she signed up to.
Back then, heads still had to worry about academic outcomes and young people’s pastoral wellbeing. But they did not have to support pupils with things such as suicide ideation.
Shortly after she told governors she was leaving, she was told of an incident involving a vulnerable pupil. Thankfully the right care and support was given to that young person, but Forde realised that “if something had happened to her, I don’t think I could cope”.
With other support services stripped back and schools now “seen as a fourth emergency service”, the accountability on Forde’s staff means they carry a “weight of responsibility” for young people who openly declare they are self-harming – which impacts their own mental health.
Some staff also still carry the trauma of losing loved ones from Covid. Their resilience is “not as strong as it was”, and they can “go down a dark hole”.
Last year Forde had to call an ambulance for a member of staff who indicated they “might take these pills”. Forde signposts her staff to professional help; posters inside toilet doors list the counselling offered by Education Support Partnership – “because I’m not a professional counsellor.”
Parental engagement is “more negative” too, she says. They are now quick to complain to Ofsted, the Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) and “their lawyers” if they feel standards are slipping. “All of that takes its toll.”
Riding the bus instead of going to school
Forde admits she didn’t attend school regularly – although the lack of safeguarding measures made it seem “nobody really cared”.
She recalls hours riding the bus up and down Oxford Street in London and left at 16 with no qualifications.
Her decision to become a teacher years later was prompted by a desire to prevent other young people going down a similar path.
Following stints at a “posh chocolate shop” and as a PA for an Icelandic record company, Forde did a childcare course when she was 24 and moved on to GCSEs.
After studying a degree in African history and literature at the SOAS University of London, followed by a PGCE, she began her teaching career in Tottenham, north London.
She was always drawn to schools with “real challenges”, later working for seven years as head of year at Hornsey School for Girls. Forde, who has three adult daughters, admits she is drawn to a “girls gotta do it!” mentality.
She then joined the DfE’s now defunct Future Leaders programme, which took middle leaders and assistant heads on a fast track to deputy headship. The professional development included a study tour to Chicago. After that, she was “chomping at the bit” for a leadership role.
But things didn’t go to plan. When her placement year at Hampstead School finished, the rest of the 25-30 people on her cohort got deputy jobs but it took Forde “20-plus interviews” before she was offered a “substantive” position.
Only 3 per cent of heads are non-white, and Forde believes governing boards “do not reflect the communities they serve”.
Headship is not easy for leaders of colour
“There’s an unconscious bias. One feedback I got was, ‘we’re just not sure how the community would relate to you’. What does that mean? It’s ridiculous.”
These days she warns other aspiring leaders of colour that becoming a head is “not a walk in the park”, that it can be more challenging because they have an “additionality … that we don’t feel is on our non-black colleagues. We carry that and it’s not easy.”
After three years as deputy head at Copland Community School in Wembley, she quit when a teacher she had challenged over poor conduct was overheard referring to her as a “frizzy-haired gollywog”.
She was told the school was unable to act because the comment was heard “third hand”. Forde did not want to work in a place “where that racism can go unchallenged”.
After two years as senior vice-principal at Langdon Academy in Newham, Forde took on her first headship at Ely College in Cambridgeshire, which had just gone into special measures. She found it a shock after the capital and “lots of investment” through programmes such as London Challenge and results that went “up and up”.
Its staff were highly unionised, which meant Forde “couldn’t do anything without them wanting to call a meeting”.
“It’s really hard when you’ve got large groups of staff who either a) can’t or b) won’t. Then you have to fight. You have to work out, ‘how are we going to manage ‘won’ts?’ And how are we going to manage the ‘can’t?’ The can’ts are CPD support, mentoring, and then the won’ts …you’ve got to use different policies and structures.”
When the regional schools commissioner rebrokered the school to another trust, Forde says they were “very clear they didn’t want me as a head.
“They were all white men. And it just felt like…am I just not the right fit? Is there something about the optics here?
“I was disappointed that my 15 months had not been recognised. But I just thought if that’s how you’re going to treat staff, I wouldn’t want to work for you anyway.”
Forde is proud of what she has done to “re-energise” Copthall, although it has not been without its challenges. When she first joined, many would not sign up to her “vision” and left.
“A lot had been here for a long time. It just needed a bit of refocusing on ‘why are we here?’ ‘We’re here for the children, we’re not here for you’.”