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Experience of school leaders during pandemic has destroyed morale, MPs told

Today (Weds 2 Feb), at a parliamentary briefing event organised by school leaders’ union NAHT, MPs will be hearing from school leaders about their experiences during the pandemic, and how issues of pay, workload and wellbeing are causing a crisis in the supply of head teachers.

Diana Ohene-Darko, assistant head teacher and acting deputy head teacher at two London primary schools, and NAHT national committee member, will tell MPs: “My colleagues and I are working against a backdrop of a lack of professional agency, autonomy and independence. Instead of being hailed as heroes for working on the frontline in recent times we have been unfairly criticised to hide government failure.

“Until recently, I would have confidently called myself an ‘aspiring Head,’ one who wanted to make a difference more widely for the benefit of pupils, staff and the wider community, to take on that role of responsibility and accountability in leadership. However, in this regard, I now have to reflect.

“A decade-long, real-terms pay freeze, along with Headteachers becoming scapegoats for government failures during the pandemic, has meant that school leaders are thinking twice about progressing all the way to Headship (never mind staying in the profession at all), not least because when all is said and done, it is their ‘head’ on the line.”

MPs attending the event (including Labour, Lib Dem and Conservative) will receive a briefing on the findings of reports published by NAHT last year into the pay, workload and wellbeing of school leaders in England, which revealed 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%.)

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.

An overwhelming majority of school leaders (93%) said that the government had failed to support their well-being during the covid-19 pandemic. 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’.

Ms Ohene-Darko continued: “Throughout the pandemic, vocational commitment has been tested to breaking point. Workload has soared to the point that our leaders are suffering with their own physical and mental wellbeing; many have had to seek wider support and there is no shame in that.

“It is time that our profession was given back the credibility it deserves, in line with other countries who have education on a pedestal. It is time that we were paid in line with inflation, year on year to reflect the continued and sustained hard work of our profession. It is time that we are remunerated for our tireless efforts in keeping education going for the last two years, despite several lockdowns, late guidance and the strain of doing our own track and trace.”

Paul Whiteman, NAHT general secretary, who will lead the event, said: “When we said school leadership supply is teetering on the brink of collapse, we meant it, and the response that we have had to this report suggests many within the profession agree.

“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 failed to provide incentive to step up and take on the responsibility of school leadership.

“The government urgently needs to listen to school leaders’ experiences and concerns, which is why we are here in Westminster today. We thank those MPs who have attended our briefing event and urge them to use this information to push for change.”

First published 02 February 2022