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School leadership supply 'teetering on the brink of collapse', warn school leaders in new NAHT report

Today (Weds 8 Dec), school leaders’ union NAHT launches its latest report into school leaders’ pay, workload and wellbeing, at an online ‘town hall’ event for its members this evening.

The report, based on a survey which had more than 2,000 respondents during the autumn term, shows that fewer school leaders aspire to headship than ever before. More than half (53%) of school leaders who are not currently a head teacher indicated that they do not aspire to headship (up about a third since 2016, from 40%.)

Aspiration to headship decreases with experience – the more experience a teaching professional has, the less likely they are to aspire to be a head teacher. Less than a third (29%) of middle leaders aspired to a more senior role in the future, with 36% indicating that senior leadership is not their goal. More than half (53%) of assistant and deputy head teachers did not aspire to headship.

Concerns about personal well-being were recorded as the single biggest deterrent to school leadership, with almost nine in ten assistant and deputy heads (87%) and middle leaders (86%) identifying this as being a deterrent to headship or a leadership role.

Paul Whiteman, NAHT general secretary, said: “School leadership supply is teetering on the brink of collapse. Fewer teachers aspire to become school leaders, and aspiration to headship has plummeted.

“Experienced teachers and leaders with decades of classroom and management experience do not view headship as an attractive, viable and sustainable career choice. Awareness of the spiralling mental health and well-being crisis amongst leaders, and failure to address falling real-terms pay has provided little financial incentive for promotion.

“The future leadership supply indicators are all flashing red. It is now time for a complete reset – not just in terms of the government relationship with school leaders, but also in the nature of the school leadership experience itself.”

The report also reveals steeply rising dissatisfaction with school leadership as a career choice. The number of school leaders who would recommend school leadership fell by over a third (36%) between 2020 and 2021, from 47% to 30% in a single year. Almost half (47%) of school leaders said they would not recommend school leadership as a career goal.

An overwhelming majority of school leaders (93%) said that the government had failed to support their well-being during the covid-19 pandemic. Almost nine in ten assistant and deputy heads (89%) and over eight in ten middle leaders (84%) took the same view.

When asked to summarise their experience of being a leader over the last year in a single word, the top answers were ‘stressful’, ‘challenging’ and ‘exhausting’, closely followed by ‘relentless’, ‘overwhelming’, ‘demoralising’, and ‘undervalued’.

Almost nine in ten respondents (88%) said their role impacted on the quality or quantity of their sleep. 83% reported increased worry, fear or stress about their job. Three-quarters of leaders (75%) reported that their role had a negative impact on their mental health. And almost six in ten (59%) leaders said their role had a negative impact on their physical health.

When asked what would improve the attractiveness of school leadership, close to nine in ten (86%) school leaders said ‘greater recognition of school leaders as professionals’. Well over half (58%) said that greater professional autonomy, independence and agency would make school leadership more attractive. Over two-thirds (70%) of leaders told us that reducing leadership workload would make school leadership roles more attractive.

Mr Whiteman continued: “The Government’s confused and chaotic handling of the Covid response in schools has further deepened the existing crisis in school leadership. Before the pandemic hit, it was clear that leadership recruitment and retention was at breaking point due to unsustainable workload and working hours, and a broken inspection and accountability system. The Government’s actions over the last two years have made an already bad situation even worse, and has left many leaders feeling mistreated, distrusted and unsupported. Many are making plans to retire or leave the profession early.

“To prevent this, it is necessary to restore agency and independence to leaders, value their professional experience, deliver fair accountability measures, remove workload and restore and enhance leadership salaries that have suffered a decade of real terms losses.

“Leaders don’t need more system change or government intervention, they simply need appropriate resources, sufficient autonomy and to be trusted to get on with the job they love. Leading a school is an incredible and rewarding job, but one which carries with it huge responsibility. A clear message is that school leadership should be more akin to other professional careers – such as medicine, architecture and law – with school leaders being offered the same level of trust and autonomy as other professions.”

NAHT’s report ‘Fixing the leadership crisis: making school leadership a sustainable career’ makes 5 recommendations to government to ensure sufficient leaders for the future, including restoring trust by empowering school leaders to make the decisions that best meet their learners’ needs, and reforming inspection and accountability measures to remove drivers of unnecessary workload, fear and stress.

It also urges the government to work to restore leaders’ real pay and restore the leadership pay differential by allowing the School Teachers’ Review Body (STRB) a proper remit to make recommendations for a professional pay structure that would support teachers and leaders throughout their careers.

More than eight in ten (83%) leaders said that the pay freeze has negatively impacted their morale. More than four in ten (44%) identified clearer pay progression for school leaders as an action that would improve the attractiveness of school leadership as a career choice.

Mr Whiteman concluded: “These findings rebut the complacent approach of the Department for Education which has repeatedly constrained the STRB and ignored its repeated requests to review the leadership pay structure. We urgently need government to take the STRB’s warnings seriously and to act on them, to support the retention of experienced teachers and leaders, and to help fix the leadership supply crisis.”

First published 08 December 2021