Keeping their heads? School leader turnover rises by a third

'We’re seeing the resumption of a downward trend in leadership retention'

'We’re seeing the resumption of a downward trend in leadership retention'

14 Oct 2022, 5:00

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Headteacher turnover has leapt by more than a third since before the pandemic, with one in ten schools welcoming a new head this September.

SchoolDash data shows there was 2,127 headteacher changes this September, when appointments peak, up from 1,584 in September 2019 – a 34 per cent rise.

Meanwhile, a separate analysis by TeachVac shows a 54 per cent rise in secondary school headteacher vacancies this September when compared to last year. In fact, two schools re-advertised for their vacant role three times in the space of five months.

Ian Hartwright, senior policy adviser at school leaders’ union NAHT, said “we’re seeing the resumption of a downward trend in leadership retention – that’s what we’d expected but hoped might not be the case.”

The new normal or pent-up demand?

Turnover rates had dropped after 2019 as schools dealt with Covid, with job moves becoming somewhat more popular in January and April instead. SchoolDash data shows there were just 1,208 headteacher changes in September 2020 and 1,434 last year.

TeachVac chairman, John Howson, said “a lot of people hung on through Covid, therefore there was probably a backlog of people who might have got a promotion or moved to another part of the country.”


Timo Hannay, SchoolDash’s managing director, said a small amount of turnover can be a good thing, but sustained high levels can create “serious disruption”.

He said rises were unlikely to be “simply due to pent-up demand” of headteachers who delayed job moves during Covid uncertainty.

“We are already well over a year down the road and all the indicators are still pointing to increased turnover. Unless these trends begin to reverse in the coming months, at some point we will need to accept them as a new normal,” he added.

Headteacher changes were tracked from DfE data, and covered state and private schools.

Of the 1,660 primary schools with new headteachers in September, 97 per cent were state schools – meaning 9.6 per cent of state primaries had a new head this year.

Of the 467 secondary schools with new heads this September, 76 per cent were state schools. This equates to 10 per cent of all mainstream state secondary schools in England.

High turnover risks ‘enormous’

Hartwright said the risk to schools of high turnover is “enormous”, as it is “leaders, working with the governing or trust board, who set school improvement plans with long-term objectives for the school”.

“If you have a lot of change of leadership it disrupts that work. Like in any occupation, you need to spend time getting to understand the lay of the land and getting underneath the bonnet of it to see how things are really working.”

He also warned “less experienced” staff could be drawn into leadership roles where schools are struggling to fill gaps, making leaders “less effective”.

Data seems to back up that this is already happening.

The DfE’s annual school workforce census already shows the proportion of 25 to 29-year-olds in leadership roles rose by 173 per cent in the decade to 2021-22.

‘Harder to bring staff into new roles’

This is likely impacted by the changing academy landscape during those years though, with an evolving role for headteachers in multi-academy trusts.

“If there are much less experienced staff at all levels, it makes it harder to bring new staff into those roles because there’s fewer mentors,” said Hartwright.

“What is emerging now is something of a perfect storm, where real terms pay is depleting, there isn’t enough funding for schools, [heads] are dealing with a spiralling energy costs crisis and that might explain why some are thinking ‘I can’t do this anymore’.”

NAHT and fellow school leaders’ union ASCL are consulting members over industrial action on the government’s proposed five per cent pay rise for experienced teachers – 4.9 per cent below the current rate of inflation. They want pay restored to 2010 levels.

A recent ASCL survey of 2,000 school leaders found more than two-thirds said exhaustion and fatigue and unsustainable workload were causing them to consider leaving the profession.

“It is a terrible indictment of the way the government has treated the education sector, and it only has itself to blame if there is now a crisis in filling leadership positions,” said general secretary Geoff Barton.

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “The overall picture of school leadership in England is positive – vacancy rates are low and the quality of leadership is high, but we do recognise school leaders have faced challenges.

“That is why we are taking a wide range of action to support the profession, including committing to the delivery of 500,000 teacher training and development opportunities by 2024, and funding a support scheme specifically for leaders.”

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One comment

  1. Normally, I believe that 50% of headship vacancies appear between January and end of March each year. I find the graph appearing to suggest that 10%+ of all school are advertising for a headteacher in September merits further explanation.

    TeachVac numbers of vacancies advertised for headteachers across primary and secondary sectors in England were 160 in September 2021, and 192 in September 2022 including a small number of re-advertisements.