Why choose Headship
Research by Education Data Surveys shows that it is becoming harder and harder for schools to fill the top job: existing headteachers are reaching retirement age and there simply aren’t enough applicants to replace them. And a recent report in The Guardian suggests that inner-city comprehensives might face a particular shortage as the result of a “dramatic decline” in the number of teachers applying to join the Future Leaders scheme, which trains senior leaders to work in challenging schools.
So what is it that makes someone choose to become a headteacher? How can the profession persuade more people to take on school leadership responsibilities? And where can it find more candidates? One big pool of potential talent could be people who rise to senior positions in other professions before retraining as teachers, says Luke Graham, the head of recruitment at the TDA and a former teacher. While these candidates need to learn about schools and teaching, they will already have significant team leadership skills and thus will be well-placed to take on additional responsibilities fast in a way that people entering teaching straight after university may not be. “I never thought about teaching as a stepping stone to management [but] there are people now coming in who are very clear that they are going to move up to headship, and who have a clear timetable for doing so,” he says. “It’s not at all unusual now.”
Career change into school leadership
Amanda Bailey, the deputy head at Altrincham Grammar School for Girls, is one of those people. The 44-year-old enjoyed a successful career in the private sector – she trained as an accountant before working as a management consultant and then a senior IT executive – but, a few years ago, realised that she couldn’t see herself in the job for the next 20 years. “The financial rewards did not motivate me as they once had. I became dissatisfied and started looking for something with more intrinsic reward. The turning point came when I went to a dinner part with some people and we all sat around all night talking about the latest fast car that they had purchased.”
She started her PGCE in September 2005; at the same time she began thinking about how to ready herself for headship as well. “It wasn’t because I wanted to climb up the greasy pole but because I wanted to transfer the skills that I had leant in industry into the sector in which I thought I would find it more rewarding,” she says. “I always wanted to progress so I joined my PGCE as a fast track teacher and really enjoyed that part of it as well.” This also helped her develop into headship; her fast track status meant that she had taken on teaching and learning responsibilities before the end of her NQT year. “The leadership team was open to that and was pleased to use my strengths and get my perspective on things, which could be quite different [to theirs] at the time. The staff took a bit more getting used to it. There are staff in schools who think that unless you have been at the coalface for 20 years then you should not be a leader.”
In her second year as a teacher she applied to the Future Leaders programme and in September 2008 she joined Altrincham as a deputy. “There was never an issue with the fact that I was part of the leadership team so early on. The head here has been very keen to harness my business acumen and use that when the school is making decisions about things where I might be able to have input.” For example, she looks after IT, communications and marketing and runs quite a lot of the leadership workshops as well as being involved in a lot of strategic thinking.
While Amanda says that she has been luck in working with open-minded school leaders, in some areas the idea of fast-tracking into headship with a comparatively small amount of classroom time is frowned upon; there’s an assumption that unless you have years at the coalface you don’t have what it takes to be a head. While this is not the case at all, she says, Amanda does believe that training as a teacher has been valuable. “I lead people when I worked in industry and those skills are transferable. However, education is hugely complex…I did consider whether I should I hang on for a few years until you don’t have to do teacher training to be a headteacher [as is now happening] but education is a complex beast and…although you could probably be a pretty good head teacher without QTS it is very powerful to have been in the classroom. It gives you more credibility with students, staff, parents and governors.” It also gave her a chance to hone her teaching skills; she’s fine with complex strategic analyses about PFI deals, but she recognised that the classroom took her out of her comfort zone.
Show candidates that there are non-traditional routes
Amanda, who is completing her NPQH and looking for her first position as principal or headteacher, thinks that more could be done to help new and potential entrants to the profession see that they don’t have to follow the traditional route to headship, and that leadership experience earned elsewhere will contribute here. “The academy system does this well because you don’t have to take a long time as head of subject or year or department before moving on to the next stage,” she says. While it is useful for school leaders to have spent a couple of years in the classroom – it helps them understand the dynamics of a school and what it means to be a teacher – career changers should be shown that this can form part of a relatively short apprenticeship, rather than taking years or even decades.
“The way to encourage people like me is to say ‘come and look at what education is all about for a couple of years’ and for them to do something like the National College’s accelerate to headship, which can really help and is fantastic quality training – at least as good as anything I have come across in industry. It taught me about education and about how I could transfer my skills into it. I would say ‘come and learn to be a teacher then get yourself on one of these programmes. Don’t think that it will take a long time.”
Give people the chance to try it on for size
It’s not just career changers who benefit from the chance to try things out, says Lynda Dobson, the headteacher at Birkbeck College in Lincolnshire. Lynda, 49, had always known that she wanted to follow in her father’s footsteps by becoming a teacher, but was equally certain at the outset that she didn’t want to be a head. For a start, it would take her away from working directly with children; on top of that, everything she saw about the role suggested that it was an incredibly hard and stressful job. “My dad had been a head and he was always very tired,” she says. “He’d come home and fall asleep in front of the six o’clock news.”
Lynda spent nearly ten years as a teacher in a large science and maths department at a school in Oldham before moving to the small Lincolnshire school – it now has 320 students – as head of department. She spent a decade in that role with absolutely no desire to move into a more senior position. “I was very happy to be head of maths,” she says. This only changed when the head, deputy and senior teacher – equivalent to an assistant head – all left at about the same time and she was asked to be the senior teacher. “My first thoughts were very practical, like ‘I don’t want to do assemblies’,” she says.
Although Lynda was nervous at first, she soon found that she enjoyed having a say in the issues managed by the senior team. “The more that I found out about the job and about school leadership the more interesting it became,” she says. Despite this, she had no plans to move further up the ladder and was happy in the role for the next six years. It was only in 2007, when the head teacher left and the deputy had to take time off to care for her seriously ill husband, that Lynda realised she faced a choice: take on the acting headship herself, or accept that an outsider would come in to lead the school.
“When I was asked if I wanted to be acting head it was terrifying, [particularly because] I skipped being a deputy, which might train you for it.” Still, she accepted the responsibility, did her NPQH and, 12 months later, she took on the substantive post and has never regretted it. She admits that, without the particular combination of circumstances that she faced, she would not have moved into a senior leadership position. Partly this was because she loved the job she was already doing and could see only the negative aspects of headship; on top of this, she didn’t have the self-confidence to push herself forward for the role.
Her advice to anyone who wants to encourage experienced teachers to give leadership a try is to persuade them to take it on a bit at a time – and not to be afraid to give them a bit of a push. “Until you do the job you don’t see the positives, you only see the negatives. No one can tell you how good it feels to walk around and say ‘this is my school’. Having that time as acting head allowed me to see those things and to realise that I loved it.” Having support and encouragement from other members of the senior leadership team is also important, as this will help give individuals the confidence needed to do the job, she says.
Carly Chynoweth is a freelance journalist
who writes about leadership and management
in both the public and private sectors.
Page Published: 07/05/2010