Today’s publication of the Future Leaders’ report, Heads Up[i], on the problems of recruiting headteachers is very timely. The report just does not describe the scale of the problem but also identifies what factors that are contributing to a lack of applications for headteacher applications. It picks out the pressure of a high stakes accountability regime, the potential unattractiveness of working in some locations, the career risk involved in taking on a struggling school and the potential bias in the selection system again Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic candidates.
To that list I would add two other factors. First the demise of the National College for school leadership. At its peak the College was acting as a beacon and a rallying point for school leaders: it was a demonstrable affirmation of headship. The centre in Nottingham was a vibrant hub of leadership learning and research. More practically the College was co-ordinating work undertaken at a regional level to estimate the future demand and supply for leaders. It also had an integrated set of courses and programmes designed to lead teachers through to headship which were latterly were delivered through licensed consortia. Of course, both the College and NPQH had their limitations but by dismantling much of the leadership development infrastructure the government has weakened rather than strengthened the school leadership pipeline.
Second, in my work with school leaders I am often told about the gulf between being a deputy and being a head. There is a step-change in the level of responsibility. It is not uncommon to find deputy heads who are happy to continue in the number two role and see little incentive to take on the hassle, responsibility and stress of being the number one leader.
So what are we going to do about the situation? The contributions in Heads Up rightly argue for school leaders to give more attention to identifying developing and supporting the development of emerging leaders. But my own view is that the contribution from Jan Renou, the Regional Schools Commissioner for the North, is much nearer the mark in arguing that we need to rethink the school leadership pathway.
“For future school leaders, the emerging career ladder offers exciting opportunities around well-defined roles: head of school, headteacher, executive headteacher and now chief executive officer (CEO)”
The key point she makes is seeing the role of head of school as the route into headship. ‘Head of school’ is about much more than a semantic change of name. As Jan explains:
“Developing a head of school by giving them more space and time than can be found in a deputy post allows them to learn the ropes with a focus on teaching and learning, and provides them with a ‘safety net’, a mentor, and time.”
Developing the concept of the ‘apprentice’ headteacher has to be a key part of the solution to the leadership recruitment challenge. And it would help if the pay and conditions of service framework gave greater acknowledgement to the ‘head of school’ role.
In practice a ‘head of school’ role can really only work if schools are part of a group with an executive head supporting and overseeing a cluster of schools. Echoing another of Jan Renou’s points this model is more likely to be possible and work best in formal school structured partnerships – such as federations and multi-academy trusts (MATs). Indeed rather than seeing MATs as some sort of quick fix to school failure the government would do much better to promote MATs as the pinnacle of school partnership – helping to grow both teachers and leaders.
MATs also provide the means for strategically deploying young and emerging leaders across the academies in the trust and giving them experience of leading in other schools and context. A strategy that will be all the more powerful if, at the same time, it is linked to them participating in formal middle, aspiring and senior leadership programmes.
To be fair much of this agenda can be and is being developed in the best teaching school alliances but it relies on high trust between schools and governors in order to achieve it and is more likely to be practised opportunistically rather than strategically.
So let’s redefine the career path to headship, affirm the role of ‘head of school’ and encourage more schools to come together in federations and MATs to make it a reality.