Being a headteacher is a tough job: but it is also a brilliant one. Let’s talk up the positives and encourage the best senior leaders to take on the challenge.
It is true that being a headteacher is not an easy task, and that’s not surprising: you have hundreds of young people in your care, manage scores of adults and millions of pounds, and are accountable to a community, a local authority or trust, an inspectorate and a government department.
As Sir Michael Wilshaw writes in The Future Leaders Trust’s new report, headteaching is a role with tremendous social importance. Many reports over the past few years have signalled that schools are finding it harder to recruit – for example, in a 2015 survey by the National Governors Association, 43 per cent of respondents reported it was difficult to find good candidates when recruiting senior staff.
Schools without good, committed leadership face decline, and children’s educations suffer as a result. We need a
co-ordinated effort to solve this problem, but are lacking the information we need to do so. In an age of “big data”, where every child’s achievement and progress is monitored centrally, we would benefit from similar rigour applied to headteacher recruitment because the two are inextricably linked.
Until we get the data we need, how can we tackle the problem? The Future Leaders Trust is calling for a change in the negative perception of headship that has developed as a first step.
In 2009, the National College of School Leadership reported that 86 per cent of heads would recommend the job to a colleague. But last year, 86.8 per cent of headteachers responding to a survey said the job was less attractive than it had been five years before.
Potential headteachers are bombarded by negative messages about headship. News outlets cite lack or work/life balance, loneliness, the soullessness of modern education and fears of career suicide. These headlines threaten to undermine the role’s credibility and do not do justice to its many positives.
Headship is rewarding, but not everyone can do it
In my organisation’s recent report, four headteachers shared their experiences. Rimah Aasim, the headteacher of Worth Valley Primary School in Bradford, does not regret taking the step up to headship at an early age: “Working in challenging schools in disadvantaged areas is tough but all children deserve an education no matter where they come from, and it is our duty to provide it.”
Matt Butler, executive principal of Oasis Academies North Bristol, writes: “It is the most rewarding job I can think of. Part of that is because overcoming the challenges is rewarding – but mainly because the fulfilment of getting it right is phenomenal.”
Headship is rewarding, but not everyone can do it. It requires specific skills; competencies that allow headteachers to overcome the role’s challenges. We have identified a cluster of these competencies that work together and reinforce each other, allowing heads to navigate the complexities of headship.
We have identified 11 competencies that enable school leaders to cope with their exposed position in times of crisis as well as success. Among them are developing others, self-awareness, and resilience and emotional maturity – which Matt Butler identifies as “in my view the most fundamental trait of successful heads”.
These competencies aren’t innate; they can be developed. What turns a talented senior leader into a great headteacher are opportunities for practice and feedback in real situations, plus access to technical expertise and sharing experience. That is why professional networks, driven by shared values, are so vital.
Senior leaders need help and a tap on the shoulder encouraging them to step up. The best place to get that is from a headteacher who believes in them. That is why we are calling on headteachers across the country to identify and encourage members of their team with the talent, passion and determination to become heads – to give them a heads up that headship could be for them.
The Future Leaders Trust’s report ‘Heads Up: Meeting the challenges of headteacher recruitment’ is available at: www.future-leaders.org.uk/headsup
The Future Leaders programme for aspiring headteachers is currently accepting applications: www.future-leaders.org.uk/apply