Executive head Sara-Jane Baker has had a rough week. After a gruelling three-hour child protection review the day before we speak, she was straight into other meetings while also dealing with parent complaints and providing emotional support to her staff, without getting a chance to catch her breath.
The myriad of responsibilities in leading a federation of three small schools sometimes makes her feel overwhelmed. She has considered quitting.
But in those dark moments, it’s the reassurance and advice she receives from her mentor David Barnett that keep her going. Former head Barnett is lead partner of aHead, a peer support programme run by Devon Schools Leadership Services (DSLS), one of several newish support charities for distressed heads that is seeing growing demand.
Just over half of Devon heads took up the support offer when the charity was set up in 2020. Last year it was just over three-quarters.
Recruitment and retention difficulties, Ofsted pressures, and the dismantling of other public services is leaving heads, as Baker puts it, “exhausted trying to keep all the plates spinning”.
“We are so busy looking after everybody else – but we need looking after too.”
Barnett leads a team of 10 retired or serving experienced heads who each support around 40 school leaders across Devon. The service is funded via a top slice from the local authority which schools vote on each year, although dwindling budgets mean its future is uncertain.
In other areas, where such support existed before, it was mostly disbanded with the advent of the national funding formula in 2018. But DSLS’s operations manager, Clare Coates, believes their model is “eminently workable” elsewhere.
The scheme’s success is put down to the fact it is head-on-head support. “With the greatest respect, a local authority [support] team … don’t know what it’s like doing the day job,” says Coates.
Support ranges from one-to-one sessions in which heads offload their troubles or get practical advice, to group CPD sessions based on the challenges their mentees are most frequently encountering. One recent session was on dealing with parental complaints.
Mentor Melanie Smallwood blames this on schools being “one of few [public services] left you can come in and speak to somebody”. Baker said a recent session on managing workload helped alleviate the guilt she feels when she chooses not to work at weekends.
‘It’s like admitting I’m vulnerable’
Heads say a key benefit is that the support is confidential. Devon has more than its share of small schools, and Barnett believes leading them is particularly isolating and demanding.
But even heads in large MATs “often don’t feel they can talk to their line manager because it’s almost admitting, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing, I’m vulnerable.’”
Dan Polak has been supported by the service since he moved from the deputy to head position at Pilton Bluecoat Academy, part of TEAM MAT, in 2020. When Polak, who recently became the trust’s director of education, was first offered the support, he “questioned the need” for it as TEAM is “incredibly supportive” on wellbeing matters.
But he discovered it provides a “different dimension” of support because of its anonymity.
“When you start out as a trust head it doesn’t matter how supportive people are, you’re conscious of the implications of saying ‘I’m not confident in that area’”.
Polak compares new headship with becoming a parent: “disorientating in a way you can’t anticipate”.
“You have all these hopes and dreams, then the reality is different. I noticed how much less secure I was in my decision making because I now held the ultimate accountability.”
Polak was proud of a feedback policy he championed as a deputy to cut workload, but when “the buck stopped” with him, he started questioning its effectiveness.
“The [DSLS] service gave me that forum where I could openly wonder about things that I previously thought I was sure about.”
‘That’s my mental health man!’
Baker started working with Barnett as assistant executive head, and doesn’t think she would have stepped up as acting head when the opportunity arose if it had not been for his encouragement.
She recalls being in “floods of tears” within ten minutes of their Zoom call.
They talked online for another 12 months before she first met him, accidentally, at a conference.
“I saw him across the room and thought, that’s my mental health man! The person I bear my inner soul to on a screen for an hour in half term. It was a bit surreal.”
Barnett emphasises that none of the scheme’s partners are trained therapists. DSLS pays for members to have access to the charity Education Support’s Employee Assistance Programme (EAP), which provides access to trained councillors and a confidential 24-hour wellbeing helpline.
Education Support’s leaders service, which provides heads with six one-hour sessions of professional supervision, is currently experiencing “very high demand” – with a waiting list of around 12 weeks.
More than 1,000 heads have benefited from the £760,000 government-funded scheme.
After the death of Caversham headteacher Ruth Perry, whose family say she killed herself after her school was downgraded from ‘outstanding’ to ‘inadequate’, the government expanded the scheme. Further funding of up to £380,000 will double the number expected to benefit over the next year from 500 to 1,000.
The charity previously only hit around half of its target, though. Faye McGuinness, the programme’s director, said low take-up was due to many heads feeling like they “simply don’t have the time and capacity to do it”. But there was also “almost a feeling of guilt” from heads that they were “spending the time looking after themselves”.
But they had 490 sign-ups between January and May, compared to just 149 during the same period last year.
A recent report from the charity concluded long working hours have become “wholly normalised within schools”. Latest workload figures show senior leaders’ average week dropped from 60.5 hours in 2016, to 55.1 in 2019. But it has crept back up and now stands at 56.8 hours. Two in five leaders work more 60 hours a week.
Governors and trustees have a statutory duty to ensure heads’ wellbeing and oversee their workload.
The National Agreement, Raising Standards and Tackling Workload (2003), struck between government, employers and unions, states that governing bodies should ensure heads have “dedicated time to lead their schools, not just manage them”.
Yet a DSLS survey in December found only 19% of Devon heads were taking any sort of dedicated leadership time.
The National Governance Association’s chief executive Emma Knights says chairs “tell us how worried they are about their heads in their workload pressures”.
The charity last year reported a rise in governing boards monitoring the workload, wellbeing and work life balance of headteachers and MAT chiefs (from 73 per cent in 2021 to 79 per cent last year). It has since produced resources to help chairs better support heads.
Barnett blames rising workloads on the demise of other public services.
Whereas in the past heads could rely on local authority behaviour support teams and educational psychologists, after years of austerity, “schools are the only services left to deal with sometimes very serious issues. Ultimately, everybody’s looking to you to sort it out. One final little thing might just tip someone over the edge.”
One of DSLS’s mentors, Steve Hitchcock, recently launched a funding campaign to pay for services that used to be funded by the local authority for his maintained primary, St. Peter’s in Budleigh Salterton.
The crowdfunding campaign requested donations for resources including SEND sponsorship (£2,500) for dyslexia assessment or to see an educational psychologist, and for everyday items like A4 paper.
Hitchcock, who has been a head for 14 years, is in his second year of supporting others and says he finds the process helps him build empathy.
“It makes me reflect on how I do things like dealing with parents, governors, or a tricky member of staff, or manage workload. I get such a breadth of views from people telling me ‘things are really awful’ to ‘things are great’ and I can calibrate where I am in between.”
Ofsted pressure is also keeping heads awake at night. Heads Up was started in 2019 by James Pope, a head who handed his resignation on the BBC 2 series School after an ‘inadequate’ Ofsted report.
He wanted to help heads who like him felt “squeezed out by the system”. It has since expanded to establish peer support networks of past and present school leaders at local authority, regional and trust levels, supporting 3,500 heads in double the number of local authorities (30) than last year.
He says heads are increasingly feeling a “sense of isolation” and a “notion of imposter syndrome” because the “feedback loops” they are subject to, including local authority improvement teams as well as Ofsted, are “nearly always negative”.
The free headteacher support helpline Headrest, like DSLS, sprung up in 2020 – initially to help heads “struggling with contradictory Covid guidance and late information”, its co-founder Ros McMullen explains. It soon broadened its scope. It registered a 500 per cent increase in calls in March this year compared to the same month last year.
McMullen says they had a spike in calls after the death of Perry – some of whom had known her personally. Several said “it could have been me. Some were really serious.” They say the toll of an Ofsted inspection was so great that even when the outcome is ‘good’, “they can’t go through that again”.
Baker has undergone four inspections in the last 14 months, including one of her schools being downgraded to ‘requires improvement’.
It was “hard not to personalise” the criticism. “You try really hard to think ‘this is a team’, not just me. But it still it knocks you sideways and makes you feel like you’re not good enough.”
Despite the challenges, Baker feels “very lucky” to have a support service available during stressful moments. She worries that other heads facing similar pressures elsewhere don’t have a ‘David’ they can ring up anytime.
“That’s what makes me feel really sad,” she adds.