As I write this at the end of the first half term since leaving headship, I can well imagine how tired my former colleagues are. For my part, I am only beginning to process what the job really meant to me. But I have had time to breathe, and I have used that time to advocate for school staff to get the same opportunity without having to take the step I have.
After 24 years in the profession, 15 of those in leadership and the last 8 as a headteacher, I left this summer without another job to go to. My former school is in a good place. Just last year, I was ASCL president. A few years ago, I was won a national award for headteacher of the year. My departure has caused consternation among some and suspicion among others. ‘Something must be wrong,’ people think. And they’re right, but perhaps not in the way they imagine.
I just realised that 24 years into my career and with my youngest going off to university, I could take some much-needed time to actually think about what’s right for me. It’s hard to do that when you are so immersed in a job.
Having left school with no qualifications myself, I started teaching driven to protect young people (including my three daughters) from experiences like mine. It had been all too easy for me to jump the fence, time and time again. Few cared. I became a NEET and lived up to the stereotype of the PP kid from the local estate who will never achieve.
It was the lecturer on the night course I took in childcare ahead of taking my GCSEs through an access course who got me back on track. I went on to get a history degree and the rest is, well, history. I have lived and loved the job since. In fact, I never saw it as a job. It has been an immense honour and pleasure.
But the reality is that for many of the past 24 years, and especially in the last seven as head at Copthall girls’ school, when people asked me how my girls were I would automatically assume they were asking about my students rather than my own daughters.
Had the pandemic not happened I may have felt differently. I am proud of what we achieved during that time. I think we will collectively look back one day and marvel at what an astonishing time that was. Sadly, there is no time for such reflection now – at least not from within the job.
The post-pandemic pressure is off the scale. What schools needed was support, funding, understanding, care and a huge dose of humanity. Instead, they were left alone to pick up the pieces and hold their communities. Sir Kevan Collins’s recovery plan was dismissed, expectations continued to rise relentlessly and Ofsted judgment remained just a phone call away. Meanwhile, the social, emotional and mental health impact on our pupils is played out in schools and classrooms every day.
Teacher recruitment and retention unsurprisingly fell off a cliff, only adding to the spiralling pressure. There were days when my cover list ran into double digits. I was getting tired. I didn’t have the answers. Worst of all, I felt guilty because the very reason I came into teaching was increasingly unachievable. I wasn’t able to put a qualified teacher in front of students. I wasn’t able to find the CAHMS support many desperately needed. And I knew six weeks in the summer would not be enough to recover.
I’ve since become a trustee of Education Support, and chaired their commission on retention. It seems clear to me that unless ministers wake up and wake up quickly, we will continue to see more teacher burnout, more staff leaving and a continued decline in people wanting to join.
I didn’t ever want to become a retention statistic. I hope I’ll return one day. In the meantime, I can breathe again and with that privilege I will do everything I can to ensure my former colleagues get that chance too.