Recruitment and retention

Is moving up a bigger retention problem than moving out? 

A new leadership pyramid has emerged that is pulling talent up faster than it can be replaced, argues David Benson

A new leadership pyramid has emerged that is pulling talent up faster than it can be replaced, argues David Benson

17 Jun 2023, 5:00

“It is unquestionably a difficult time to be a headteacher,” said Amanda Spielman on the BBC’s Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg earlier this year. A welcome acknowledgment, but hardly news and far from controversial. 

The pressures of Covid hangover, cost of living, strikes, recruitment and a more exacting Ofsted framework are all generally understood. To these, Sam Strickland’s article in these pages last week did well to add increases in behaviour incidents, parental complaints and mental health issues.  

I would also draw attention to a rise in complex safeguarding cases , unprecedented battles around student attendance and the stress of navigating sensitive cultural debates, which play out in the classroom just as much as they do in parliament and social media.   

But there is something else affecting leadership retention, something more systemic. With over 80 per cent of secondaries (and counting) now part of MATs, a subtle but important shift has taken place in how the profession builds and sustains its capacity.  

Instead of serving one school for an extended period, many heads now become executive heads after a few successful years, then regional directors, directors of education and MAT CEOs shortly after that. The professional pyramid which has existed for decades has been fundamentally altered. In fact, another pyramid has been built on top of it.  

The logic is that these skilled heads can then coach the next generation behind them, disseminating strong leadership across a wider group of schools. An attractive prospect, especially for DfE.  

Where this model works, it is undoubtedly transformative for the schools involved, and I’ve been fortunate to see this first hand. But where it doesn’t, it can lead to top-heavy, bureaucratic structures, and a feeling among staff that decision making has been divorced from the school. This is happening at the exact moment when schools need maximum flexibility to respond to a changing landscape, and high levels of transparency and staff voice in terms of how they operate.   

And then, of course, there is the small matter of there not being enough heads, full stop. Schools Week recently reported a 54 per cent increase in headteacher vacancies compared to last year, with hundreds of schools having to re-advertise headships two or even three times before filling a post.  

A subtle but important shift has taken place 

Restoring some of the traditional status and responsibilities of heads – including fuller autonomy over financial and educational strategy – could be key to tackling that problem. It’s certainly questionable whether elevating effective heads out of their roles is always smart, given this context.  

Many CEOs and heads in MATs will swear by the collaborative power of what has emerged as the dominant MAT structure, and plenty of MATs – like those I’ve worked with – are careful not to move heads too quickly.  

There is clearly merit in dividing up executive responsibility, be that among a large and experienced SLT or a group of MAT executives who operate around the head. It’s also true that coaching for new heads – whether done by an executive head or a trained leadership coach – is essential.  

For my part, having just finished my first decade as a headteacher (all at the same school), I can honestly say my enthusiasm for this job remains undiminished. In January, rather than ‘moving up’, I will be starting a second headship, beginning all over again. Headship is undoubtedly tough, but also hugely rewarding.

The heads I learned from all measured their impact in (minimum) 5-year blocks. They understood that as a head you grow through different phases, and the continuity you provide adds deep community value.  

So for any head who secures great results this summer or has just banked a successful Ofsted, I would take pause if your CEO pops their head round your door to offer you a new challenge. Perhaps say you’d take the (well-earned) pay-rise thank you very much, but not the move. 

The new pyramid may or may not be a permanent feature of the education system, but schools and their communities will always need headteachers who know them and are committed to their children for the long haul. 

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2 Comments

  1. Another complication of this new pyramid relates to the salaries of these MAT ‘top’ roles and how that results in lower salaries for the Headteachers below them. As new MAT roles are created, the review of headteacher salary scales results in a lower starting salary for those new heads. This is to allow attractive salaries for the MAT roles (after all, they have to be attractive enough to exec heads who are already earning a large salary). This does nothing to help attract people to this crucial role. Especially, at a time when, as Spielman herself has acknowledged, “it is unquestionably a difficult time to be a headteacher.”

  2. Chris Pyle

    A very thoughtful corrective to the “on and up, up and out” culture – it is good to read this praise for continuity in leadership and community.