Sunday, February 11, 2007


There’s always a tendency for people to look back through rose-tinted spectacles and mythologize, embellish or burnish the past, one thing is clear though, in retrospect, the embattled survivors will not view the dawn of the new millennium as a millenarian golden age. Heads of primary schools are rushing to retire early and there are precious few new recruits to replace them.

Teachers aren’t falling over themselves to get into management. On average there are only
5.4 applicants for a headship. Twenty seven per cent of schools reject all applicants and are forced to re-advertise. In the largest LEA, Kent, there are 473 primary schools, in 2005 there were 23 schools with temporary headteachers last year it has risen to 50.

My name is John, I have a mental illness.” Former national president John Illingworth stunned the NUT Conference last year when he described how he had been forced to apply for early retirement due to the effects of stress. In an interview with the TES he revealed, “There were a few weeks at the end where I was really unwell, mentally I couldn’t take decisions, couldn’t prioritise. On one occasion I was almost tempted to grab hold of a kid. I was quite emotional at sometimes, and you can’t be bursting into tears when you’re dealing with a stroppy child. At my worst last winter, I couldn’t cope… I had to wait in the car park. My character changed from being easygoing to being quite difficult. One of my sons reckons it has been 10 years since I have been myself.” After his speech at the Conference he had over 250 emails, letters and calls, but nothing from his LEA.

Why aren’t teachers becoming Heads? One reason is that the job has become more administrative, managerial and bureaucratic, Heads teach an average of 3 hours per week, but that covers small rural schools where they may teach half the week through to larger urban schools where they may never or very rarely teach. Heads spend hours trawling through accounts, buried beneath mountains of circulars, reports and correspondence; blinking into the daylight contact with staff or children is often limited.

Heads can become remote from their staff, but that is often the accepted and preferred model. However, isolation, not being able to confide in or trust other people is a significant contributor to stress. In 2000 the National Association of Headteachers conducted a survey of 300 members in
Warwickshire – 1 in 4 reported serious health problems including high blood pressure, chronic insomnia, eating disorders and excessive drinking; half claimed their families life had suffered.

With workload and hours a major issue it probably wasn’t brilliant timing to demand that prospective Heads have to pass the National Professional Qualification for Headteachers. Its supporters claim that it’s a rigorous course that will prepare candidates for the managerial qualities needed in a modern education system. An alternative view is that that the paper-laden NPQH is there to churn out a line of lobotomised robots who will uncritically implement every directive from the DfES rather than produce excellent pedagogues who can inspire and enthuse a new generation of teachers.

Training for Heads comes courtesy of the National College for School Leadership (opened in 2000) their programmes contain titles like ‘The Courage of Leaders’ and ‘Leading from the Front’. Inspirational talks are delivered by businessmen, sports people and those self-obsessed explorers who usually manage to get themselves lost and have to be rescued at enormous expense by their back-up team. Teamwork is out, instead we have the cult of the ‘super-head’, failing school – parachute in a super-head, problem solved.

The fear of failing an Ofsted inspection is another powerful factor inhibiting teachers from becoming heads. It’s seen as a personal failure, there’s the football manager syndrome – poor results sack the headteacher. Fail your Ofsted inspection and you become virtually unemployable, “and your last school was…?”

Maybe it’s something to do with an increasingly feminised workforce - 98% of infant and 83% of juniors teachers are women. Those with young families choose not to work the crippling long hours that goes with being a Head (one quarter of female Heads live on their own). The General Teaching Council carried out a survey and found that
only 4% of teachers were thinking about becoming heads in the next five years. Could it also be there’s a rejection of the macho cult of the leader that emanates from the NCSL? And are existing Heads a great role model? There’s that stressed-out, alcohol-dependent, divorcee – “Yes my child all this can be yours.”

Faced with this recruitment crisis you might have expected that hours would be cut, stress levels reduced and the testing regime side-lined. Instead of that New Labour’s ‘Blue Sky Thinkers’ have come up with the idea of Leadership Consultants who would be responsible for 5 or 6 primary schools. The only problem here is that someone has to be on hand when little Johnny or Jane runs out of school, an irate parent demands to be seen, or a mass brawl breaks out at break time and who will answer when Ofsted come calling? So responsibility will be devolved down to Deputy Heads – no prizes for guessing where the next recruitment crisis will manifest itself.

One little vignette from the TES sums up the crazy world of the primary Head. In
Hull (one of our worst performing LEAs) Heads have been under constant pressure to improve test results by whatever means necessary. Thirteen out of seventy have resigned or asked for early retirement. At a recent meeting one Head rose up out of his seat and said, “I have lost the will to live!” He left the hall doing the Morecambe and Wise final dance.


Its frightening. An excellent piece but how would you solve this problem of inadequate preparation? I don't feel that the right blend is being reached & that individulas are poorly prepared for the administrative aspect of the job.

Why should head teachers spend so much time on administration?

That's my point, particularly in the primary sector, they should spend time teaching and working with other teachers.

In Germany heads teach.

Mr Read
The best preparation for a head would be shadowing another successful head, possibly for the autumn term. They would either get a very good grounding in the "real" job or get out before its too late!
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