Recruitment and retention

The Great Resignation: now is not the time to over-react

It's been a tough few years for everyone in education, writes Dan Cowling, but let's not jump to reforms in panic at the so-called Great Resignation

It's been a tough few years for everyone in education, writes Dan Cowling, but let's not jump to reforms in panic at the so-called Great Resignation

8 May 2022, 5:00

Amid media attention on the so-called ‘Great Resignation’, we must be careful not to overstate the push factors leading to increasing numbers of headteachers leaving for retirement, or pastures new. For many of us, the ‘new normal’ is the only normal we know. Reduced workload and increased pay would be great, but the job is already an attractive prospect as it is, and we mustn’t put off new recruits.

I interviewed successfully for my first headship in February 2020 and I took up the post two months later. Between one event and the next, the world had changed. Having only ever worked in ‘outstanding’ schools during my 25 years in education, I would now have to turn my school around from ‘requires improvement’ amid a global pandemic.

Two years, multiple lockdowns, eight permanent exclusions, the replacement of 80 per cent of our teaching staff, three Ofsted monitoring inspections, one prime ministerial visit, a £1 million deficit reduction and one tragic pupil death later, I couldn’t be prouder of my school and its community. Other than the bereavement, I wouldn’t change a thing.

When I started, I was the fourth headteacher in two years and I was not particularly welcome. A succession of RI judgments stretched back to 2013, Progress 8 was -0.5 in 2019, absence was running at eight per cent (with PA at 21 per cent), free school meals topped 42 per cent, and the deficit ran £3.6 million. Behaviour could only be described as dangerous and out of control.

The challenges started immediately, almost irrespective of Covid. Resignations popped into my inbox almost the moment I started. The head of English, the languages department, science teachers, the art department. It went on. The going ahead looked tough and some wanted no part of it. I obviously looked like I was going to be hard work.

For many of us, the ‘new normal’ is the only normal we know 

In addition, I inherited a small but clearly dedicated SLT, bruised by recent experience and now stretched to breaking point by facing down another crisis in the form of remote learning. I wouldn’t meet with them face-to-face for a whole term!

Those first few months were the most demanding of my whole career. My plans for school improvement were thrown into disarray, but what Covid did give me was time that I hadn’t anticipated I would have. I went in to school every day, got to know the pupils who were attending, spoke with the staff on rota and planned for the re-boot that would be required when pupils returned. Surprisingly, we were able to save money too and offset that against the deficit.

The necessary (and massive) recruitment drive took place almost entirely through online interviews. So much HR, and so little focus on education! They don’t teach that on the NPQH. But if I was going to have a fighting chance of making the school better, I would need a full complement of high-quality teaching staff and leaders. So I spent a staggering number of hours staring at a computer screen grilling candidates to make sure that they were the right fit. It was exhausting ̶ but it was worth it.

And it has been the same across the system; we have had no choice but to start or to continue with improvements undaunted. The past two years have been the most challenging time for schools in modern history, and it’s no surprise that many are choosing to call it a day after that experience. I might consider it too if I’d achieved what I wanted to achieve, or knew I was unlikely to, or if I was coming to the end of my service.

But let’s not over-egg the need to reform the job or the school system as a knee-jerk reaction to a natural consequence of the pandemic. It’s not been easy, but it is all that I know, and I wouldn’t change it for the world. Bring on Ofsted!

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