Accountability

What headteachers mean when they say headship has changed

It’s time policy makers and accountability caught up with the new reality of headship, explains Sam Strickland, so here’s what it looks like

It’s time policy makers and accountability caught up with the new reality of headship, explains Sam Strickland, so here’s what it looks like

10 Jun 2023, 5:00

The pandemic has not only tested our schools but tested many school leaders without mercy. I have the same fire in my belly for headship as when I started, but it is no longer the same job. Exhaustion, fatigue, resentment and anger are rife among many leaders and the recent anti-Ofsted outpouring is evidence of a deep desire for a positive and healthy accountability that recognises our new reality.

Disastrous recruitment

ITT entry figures for this September show that a huge recruitment issue is not just brewing; it is here. The pandemic has fundamentally altered how people see work – their work-life balance, their sense of what they are worth and how much work they are prepared to do.

Historically, people have flocked to education during times of economic crisis. This is simply no longer the case. And all the while, experienced and seasoned teachers and leaders are exiting the profession, leaving behind an experience vacuum that can’t be filled quickly enough.

Some argue that it is for heads to sell the profession, but there comes a point when infectious enthusiasm comes across as delusional. An increased starting salary of £30,000 will not resolve this problem.

And yet, as of this summer league tables are back in full effect in spite of schools with maths departments staffed with non- specialists, or lacking a single qualified physics teacher, or unable to deliver Ebacc because they can’t find a linguist for all the tea in China.

Behavioural drift

Then there’s the problem of selling a profession that is garnering increasing negative coverage. Egged on by various social media crazes, behavioural drift has become a significant issue with pupils becoming more challenging and refusing to adhere to rules, sanctions or support.

Recording staff and posting material online, staged demonstrations and vaping in toilets have exploded, to name but a few. This is compounded by local media outlets jumping in to shame schools when a singular parent complains about an ‘overly stringent’ rule. Groups of parents turn into protest movements, and some high-profile cases see such ‘pressure groups’ appear in the national press.

Behaviour only worsens as children feel legitimised to disregard rules their parents don’t like, and heads are increasingly anxious about where the boundaries lie in the parent-school social contract, fearing such an event could trigger an Ofsted inspection.

Collapsing wellbeing

This winter, schools were hit by Covid, strep A, bouts of bronchitis and other seasonal viruses. This impacted on staff attendance as much as pupil. Many schools struggled to get the supply teachers they needed to cover absences, prompting some to ask with some validity about exam mitigations – for their accountability as much as for a fair deal for students.

Meanwhile, pupils present with challenges of a magnitude I have never known in my career. Attendance figures may mirror those of the early 2000s, but it will take even longer now than it did back then to remedy the situation. And I am yet to speak to a school leader who is not frankly alarmed by the growing number of mental health problems in our young people, which directly link to and/or stem from safeguarding issues.

However anyone wants to strip it, there simply isn’t sufficient funding in place to address all these issues, which are compounded by a lack of external support and alternative provision places.

If funding doesn’t follow, then we need nothing short of a full recalibration of the role of schools and education. Heads can’t keep being held to account for the same results when they are tackling hunger, helping families who are having to choose between heating or eating, and ensuring children are adequately clothed and in a position to come to school worry-free.

And that’s not to mention catch-up or huge uncertainty over policy direction, the explosion in energy costs, repairs to school buildings, increased PFI costs and any teacher pay increase. Heads are in a sort of no man’s land, basing their decisions on best bets and speculation.

Headship has changed. Perhaps it’s time for accountability to reflect the job we have, rather than the one policymakers – and maybe some of us – wish we still had.

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2 Comments

  1. John Lawson

    One of the most significant problems in education is that those in power know next to nothing about education. What does Gillian Keegan/Gavin Williamson know about running schools and colleges? Nothing! The civil servants are no better. There is a lack of expertise there as well because those who want to progress in the civil service have to keep changing departments.

    The answer is to seriously listen to people like Sam Strickland, who couldn’t work any harder than he does to give children and families the support they need. That doesn’t happen. It’s all about tokenism. People like Sam have the answers but rarely get support from the power brokers above them.

    Any teacher worth their salt knows about the importance of behavior. Yet we still can’t agree that we have to operate a zero-tolerance, no-excuses behavior policy in every school. Quality teaching is not possible when we allow students to disrupt lessons. Parents must NEVER be allowed to subvert the goodwill of schools to educate their children. As a headteacher, I would never expect a teacher to talk to a parent when they are supposed to teach. When the school day is over, fine, but not before then.

    I could say so much more, but I have an education article to write for someone else.

    • Hooray
      What a great article that has described how many headteachers are feeling! Some leaders have become detached from school reality and it is frustrating.
      I am sick of hearing that we JUST need to focus on teaching and learning…if ONLY!
      The job is so different to 3 years ago and teachers and leaders are dealing with issues they don’t have the training or skills set to contend with!
      This is not negativity, it is reality!