Jhe record for the UK’s oldest headteacher is 57 years. I had no desire to challenge this astounding feat of longevity, but I had always intended to stay on until I reached retirement age. But after 14 years, and far from retirement, I changed my mind.
I came across an old newspaper article written about my appointment in 2007 as headteacher from a public high school. The person looking through the page looked ridiculously young and optimistic. But looking at myself in the mirror, I was unrecognizable, eyes sunken and looking haunted around me. I needed pants with an elasticated waistband, shoes with cushioned soles, insanely high caffeine levels, and a 5:15 a.m. alarm clock just to get me through an average school day.
The contrast between the two images was so stark that I realized the many joys of leading a school community had now been outweighed by the pressures of work and I had reached my tipping point, albeit prematurely.
My experience is not unique. Nearly half of school leaders surveyed by the National Association of School Leaders (NAHT) in 2020 indicated that, like me, they intended to leave their jobs early, once they had led their schools through the Covid crisis.
It was more than a knee-jerk reaction to the sizable challenges of leading a school through the chaos of a pandemic. Many had become disillusioned with management long before Covid-19 hit, but it was the intense pressure on school leaders during this time that sparked the soul-searching that led to this exodus.
Worryingly enough, not only are more chefs retiring prematurely, but a recent report found that one on three leave the profession within five years of their appointment. In the rapidly changing environment of education, this is not a good thing. This means that schools lose the stability and continuity that long-serving school leaders can provide. Building relationships with the local community, gaining parental trust and improving student achievement can take many years.
The causes of this turnover of principals are well documented: high-stakes inspections, overwhelming workload, endless hours, insufficient funding for schools, lack of autonomy, difficulties in recruiting staff, as well as a drop in salary. in real terms by 15% over the past decade. However, in my experience, it is the increasingly impossible expectations placed on schools that school leaders have found particularly attritional.
In addition to getting students to learn to read, write and do their math, we are now also responsible for the rest of society’s ills, from preventing terrorism to preventing children from being bitten by dogs; from reducing body mass indices to ensuring students can file taxes. We are asking more of schools and their leaders than ever before.
Over the past 14 years, I have been held responsible for many things beyond my control: the delayed return from a trip to London due to the discovery of a World War II bomb; our canteen ran out of gluten-free options one lunchtime; having to call it a snow day because, of all things, it had snowed a lot. Whenever freak accidents, natural disasters, weather or acts of God occur, I have failed in my duty of care, with parents too often promising that I will be ‘reported to Ofsted’.
Complaints from parents have increased exponentially since I started teaching, and nothing is immune to criticism. From complaints about the percentage of polyester to cotton blend in our uniform, the temperature in the art block, and the incorrect use of an apostrophe in a review website we recommended, to allegations much more serious (and thankfully untrue) concerns about safeguarding, discrimination and general incompetence. Such allegations rightly require thorough investigation, but it takes valuable time away from improving teaching and learning. The corresponding increase in the number of threats to take me to court (once by three different members of the same family) led to a feeling of dread every time I opened my months-long emails.
But even passing the baton to someone new isn’t easy. At my school, we struggled to find suitable candidates and had to advertise three times for my replacement. The 2020 NAHT report found that more than 53% of assistant and deputy managers now say they don’t aspire to leadership, and who can blame them – who would want to be a manager in the current climate?
If the Department of Education wants “strong schools with great leaders” to serve the next generation, urgent action is needed to make leadership an attractive and sustainable career. Wages, trust and autonomy must be restored, and inspection and accountability must be reformed.
If we are to “ensure that every child has access to the education they deserve”, it is essential to attract the best people into school management and prevent those who are already in office from leaving for the Hills.