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Strong school leaders are like good wine, they mature with age and experience, writes Joanne Harper

It is no secret in the education sector that a number of key factors have contributed to a shortage of teachers in recent years, and in particular, teachers who can fill leadership roles. The hard-line pruning of our sector’s funding combined with increasing demand on teachers’ personal time has understandably pushed many in the industry to opt to leave teaching behind.

The growing pressures placed on school leaders is yet another issue deterring capable candidates from applying for headship. During times of challenging reform, strong leaders will be required to ensure we can move ahead confidently. The current difficulties within the education sector demand leaders who are able to comprehend all the internal workings of the school system to overcome the challenges we face.

Changing times

Gone are the days when teaching was the profession to be envied for its seemingly shorter working hours and long holidays. Many teachers now find themselves in a position where the pressure of succeeding in Ofsted inspections is compelling schools to enforce unrealistic workloads and unachievable targets. Yet, there is no let-up in other aspects of their responsibilities. The harsh reality is that many educators are expected to overhaul their life in the classroom at the cost of losing a large proportion of their free-time outside of it. 

This situation has been further exacerbated by the funding cuts imposed across all areas of education. This makes any reform difficult to carry out when there are limited resources to work with. When we combine these concerns with the lack of any financial incentive to perform extra duties, we find that many are unmotivated to continue in their role and we have seen fewer teachers applying for roles, with many educators opting to take early retirement or leave the profession altogether.

That said, on the flip side, many young teachers entering the profession seem to be in a rush to get into leadership positions and almost can’t wait to move on to the next step of their career ladder. This has resulted in an inconsistent approach to recruiting for headship. Many capable leaders have simply been overlooked while newer recruits are considered. As a result, there is a new wave of “super heads” coming through who don’t have the same outlook as older or past head teachers. These young, exceptionally ambitious teachers often act with a business mind and focus on statistics and figures as a key measure of their success, which doesn’t always integrate well with the more moralistic measures that look at individual achievements.

The right stuff

The quality of leadership is, and should remain, the most important factor that will help to determine the outcomes for children at school as the leader’s direction and strategy will greatly affect the performance of the pupils. It is therefore imperative that we have staff who are experienced in the education field and are equipped with a certain level of knowledge to carry out this role.

One issue that has had an impact on the task of acquiring “good stock” for headship roles is that candidates no longer need a headship qualification. Without this qualification, adequate training for the role is not being undertaken, resulting in new heads being less well equipped than before, despite having to deal with an ever-growing mountain of challenges.

The aspiration of early headship through the new model of the super head, that measures metrics rather than wellbeing, combined with the abolition of the compulsory headship qualification, means that we are seeing some very young heads (in terms of experience) in schools who are simply ill-equipped to deal with the variety of problems that will undoubtedly come their way. This, in turn, will create stress and a certain disillusionment that may well see these heads either burnt out or following in the footsteps of their peers and leaving the profession altogether.

I would encourage those who are on a fast-track career towards headship not to rush the process, but to spend time in the classroom, work with their peers learn more leadership skills, shadow existing heads and learn as much as possible about all aspects of running a school. Leading from the front and having confidence and authority develops over time.

Taking the lead

So what can aspiring heads do? I would recommend that they take on extra responsibility, leading projects and initiatives, whilst seeking out varied management experience. Deliberately look for opportunities that take you outside of your comfort zone and take as much as you can from leaders around you. Ensure you have a plan for work-life balance. This will help individuals build up the skills necessary for headship, without piling on too much pressure too soon.

Prospective headteachers should also be thinking about alternative leadership models, particularly co-leadership or being part of a multi-academy trust and working with an executive principal or CEO. Shared responsibility allows a less experienced leader to be eased into the duties and the role in partnership with another leader. This co-sharing of ideas, experience, thoughts and views will help the young head when it comes to taking the role on single-handedly.

A responsible approach

As the Executive Principal of two colleges, I find it is important to build balance into my day. For example, I ensure that I set aside time to talk to students, take my lunch in the cafe and sit in on lessons so that I don’t lose what I enjoy most about my profession – the love of teaching.

It is very easy to become overwhelmed with tasks but it is important to share responsibilities amongst staff, to delegate, to be self-aware and to know your strengths and your weaknesses, and this unfortunately often comes with experience and confidence. Within my leadership team I encourage individuals to own initiatives and projects; this is for their benefit as much as for my own, but it does also mean that it takes some of the pressure off me.

What’s more, I think this links in to a moral responsibility that heads should extend beyond their own school; they should look to mentor and work with heads and leadership teams in other schools. As school leaders we should be imparting our knowledge and providing training for staff, the idea being that they will ultimately be able to perform our role – whether they stay with our organisation or not. Strong leaders want to provide the best opportunity for their staff to perform well because, when staff perform effectively, this has a very positive impact on the children we are all there to teach – and isn't that why we all went into education in the first place?  

I take great pleasure in knowing that even if my staff move on, they take their experience with them. By making use of the great wealth of knowledge and know-how available to us all as professionals we can, collectively, start to patch together what is now something of a broken education system.

Further information

Joanne Harper is Executive Principal of UTC Reading and UTC Swindon:

www.utcreading.co.uk


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