Headteacher turnover still higher than pre-Covid

New analysis reveals leaders are continuing to leave the sector amid 'a general lack of contentment'

New analysis reveals leaders are continuing to leave the sector amid 'a general lack of contentment'

6 Oct 2023, 12:40

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Headteacher turnover is still 14 per cent higher than before the pandemic, suggesting departures are no longer associated with a Covid backlog but with the increased demands of the job. 

SchoolDash data shows 1,709 headteacher changes at state schools this September, when appointments usually peak, up from 1,502 in September 2019.

While turnover has dropped by 11 per cent from last year’s 1,927 changes, sector leaders have suggested the uptick reflects heads are leaving for reasons other than retirement. 

“[During Covid] hiring was curtailed, you couldn’t do in-person interviews, it was very difficult to move house. Things were depressed,” said Timo Hannay, thefounder of SchoolDash. 

Those who had put off departures until last year “were planning to do so already”, which meant the previous rise was “not necessarily an increase, it’s just catch-up”.

Turnover rates dipped in 2020 (to 942) and 2021 (to 1,286) as schools dealt with Covid, SchoolDash data shows, before rising last year.

But Hannay said this year’s lift was more likely because of “all the stuff that’s happened since then…the economic stress, the industrial action, the general lack of [contentment]”.

‘At the end of their tether’

The analysis was based on tracking DfE data updates and covered state primaries and secondaries. It did not track where heads moved on to.

Latest school workforce census figures shows 1,615 headteachers left the profession in 2021-22 for reasons other than retirement or death. 

In 2018-19, the last academic year before the pandemic, 976 heads left; 438 In 2010-11 , the earliest year for which data is available.

Ros McMullen, the co-founder of wellbeing organisation Headrest, said leaders were “at the end of their tether” over issues that included increased frontline duties.


Ian Hartwright, head of policy at the leaders’ union NAHT, said members were “leaving earlier” in their careers, aided by a “large number” of transferable skills.

Pay was one reason. Between 2010 and 2021, the salary of a school leader had declined by an “extraordinary” 15 per cent against CPI inflation, NAHT evidence to the School Teachers’ Review Body showed.

However, OECD data shows England’s heads are still among the best-paid in the world. 

NAHT members voted to strike over pay and conditions earlier this year, although the action was called off after they voted to accept the government’s 6.5 per cent pay rise.

The leaders’ union ASCL also halted a ballot for strike action after its members also accepted the offer. 

But Sara Tanton, ASCL’s deputy director of policy, and a member of the government’s new workload taskforce, said heads’ responsibilities had grown. 

“If you look at the compensation for what you’re expected to do for that…it’s not really adding up.” 

Workload was an “absolutely key” part of this. 

‘Lack of recognition’

A government survey published in March found more than two in five leaders (43 per cent) reported working at least 60 hours in a week. 

“Good terms and conditions that make [leaders] want to stay” would help to retain heads, she said. “That includes really reducing workload.”

“If you’re working ridiculous hours, that’s going to be something that isn’t sustainable.”

But barriers to lower hours could also be compounding retention. 

A recent report from wellbeing service Education Support showed that providing additional support to pupils was adding between four to six hours to an average working week. 

Meanwhile, a Schools Week investigation this year revealed the widespread collapse in external support services, with schools plugging gaps in mental health and social care provision. 

“Heads are living with a huge amount of additional work around safeguarding,” McMullen said. “You’re the one this really all lands on. Heads just think ‘I can’t take it anymore’.”

Hartwright claimed there was a “lack of recognition” of the difficulties facing leaders, adding that it was “surprising” the education secretary thought the “most pressing issue to solve in schools” was mobile phone use. 

Tanton said more leadership changes created “turbulence” and “a lack of stability” for schools, while Hartwright said assistant and deputy heads were already “concluding that [headship] is a really tricky job”.

The DfE was contacted for comment.

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