Risky business: Should headship in challenging schools come with a career warning?

Karen Edge

The Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) hosted their annual conference in London at the weekend. General Secretary Brian Lightman’s address has set the Internet abuzz with articles, tweets, retweets and blogs. Hundreds of individuals and media outlets have weighed in, including the BBC, Daily Mail and the Independent, to name but a few!

In his speech, Lightman explicitly stated what we have been hearing in whispers amongst our London-based school leader research participants. The message? Taking on headship of a challenging school can become a long-term career risk. Lightman’s tale of an ASCL member’s experience would cause a ripple of worry for even the most experienced of leaders.

In the words of one ASCL member, it can be potential “career suicide”. These sentiments capture a growing swell of concern that even leaders with stellar career histories and successful turnaround records may be falling prey to career-ending OFSTED judgements.

Lightman has linked the potential career risk to two different yet overlapping issues. First, the alarming and perhaps impossible pace at which school turnaround can be expected to take place. Second, as a result, good headteachers could be scarred by less than glowing Ofsted reports, even in cases where impressive and meaningful improvements have been made. As previous Ofsted reports, in the hands of governing bodies, may make or break a leader’s ability to get their next post, many a potential headship candidate may be pausing to reflect on their next steps.

Our ESRC-funded study of Generation X school leaders offers a sneak peek at the experience of under-40-year-old deputies and headteachers in London, New York and Toronto. Sadly, our young London-based leaders are often not immune to the aforementioned worries.

During our interviews, we have heard rumblings of a similar nature. As our participants discuss their strategies for choosing their early leadership posts, they are mindful of the influence their first and second headships will carry, as they will “make or break your career”. Our young leaders appear acutely aware of what can affect career longevity. In the words of one participant, a very able, ambitious and dedicated young leader: “You are only as good as your last Ofsted. So why take the risk?”

If our youngest and often most resilient leaders, at the beginning of their careers, are seriously considering the long term implications of taking up posts in challenging schools, what will the future look like? What are the potential implications for recruitment and retention of the leaders we need to improve schools in all circumstances?

As a parent and education reform scholar, I want all schools to be good schools – if not better. However, I am mindful that sustainable and system-wide improvement takes time and commitment. As we look forward, supporting the growth and development of schools across London and the UK will also require a cadre of leaders and teachers who are invested in the system and their professional careers over the long haul.

We hope that Lightman’s comments have created a sense of urgency amongst policy and practice leaders to begin a very public discussion of the “unrealistic” pressure being placed on headteachers to create instantaneous improvements at breakneck speed. Better yet, a public discussion of the very real implications for leaders, teachers and students of short term, standards driven changes that may not be sustainable in the long run.

Our initial thought: Fasten your seatbelts folks! We may be in for a bumpier leadership recruitment and retention ride than we anticipated.

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Posted in Karen Edge, Leadership and management
4 comments on “Risky business: Should headship in challenging schools come with a career warning?
  1. Miss Honey says:

    Is this not a natural consequence of the myth of the heroic leader single-handedly “turning a school around”? It is a narrative that appeals greatly to our politicians, always in search of a quick fix that avoids confronting deep-rooted social inequalities, but one that can leave those who mis-time their superficial “school turnaround” changes, stranded in a vessel that has been holed below the water line. If there is now a real risk of the captain having to go down with the ship, then maybe, just maybe, our careerist “young leaders”, will be inclined to think a little further ahead than the two or three years they have been wont to wait in the past, before jumping ship.
    Could be no bad thing !

  2. KarenEdge says:

    Thank you for the comment Miss Honey. We don’t have quant data on the number of years younger leaders stay versus their older counterparts. But hopefully some new ESRC-funded research by some IOE colleagues may be able to shed light on the issues.

    What we find very interesting is that not one of our participants (as of yet) takes issues with standards, OFSTED or the current climate of accountability. They are unilaterally committed to achieving the best possible education for all students. In fact, as they have ‘grown up’ within this system since the start of their teaching days, it is not something they resist.

    It appears, as a group, they are not fearful of challenge and hard work. They are simply expressing their belief, as were the possibly older leaders referred to in the address, weary of the implications of too quick assessments of leader influence and the too long implications of those assessments on their ability to continue to serve the schools and communities they are committed to.

  3. Kate Barker says:

    I agree with many sentiments of Miss Honey. As a 49 year old head in my 7th year of headship in the same school, I am cynical of the Future Leader clones who plan their head ships like chess games and leave behind a trail of neglected staff and guinea pig children. I have no sympathy with the career jumpers. However I would be interested in the statistics of heads with similar service to mine and how many of them have become victims at an age when ageism may prevent them rising from the ashes. Wilshaw talked of 20 years of Ofsted. Yet Ofsted is now more inconsistent and inspectors are more inadequate than at any point of Ofsted’s history. As heads, we get a few terms if we are lucky to do everything that successive Chief Inspectors of Ofsted have failed to do. Most inspectors now have not taught in a school for over a decade. Most have never been heads or even senior leaders. Would you send a carpenter to do a heart operation? Or a doctor to fix a broken down boiler? No, so why send a failed educationalist or a totally inexperienced leader to inspect a school? Wilshaw talked of attracting more heads as inspectors. Why would a head want to join Ofsted? Ofsted does not make a difference to the real lives of pupils;teachers, heads and other staff do. No self respecting serving head would join an organisation which sets out to systematically kick heads where it hurts, or join Ofsted when it’s morale is at its lowest. Of course you could only join if, like NLE you have the “outstanding” badge, or maybe even the LLE badge. There are actually some stunning heads in really difficult schools who would put several of these so called “outstanding ” heads to shame in terms of making a difference and impact but as they chose to put their heart and soul into difficult schools, they will not get any badge unless they are allowed years to genuinely transform the school. The Alex Ferguson analogy comes to mind. If United had used the Ofsted mentality, all these glory years for Man Utd in the past 25+ years would never have happened. So why not allow a head the genuine time needed to improve a school.
    And finally on to ASCL, our toothless, cowardly lion of a once proud headteacher’s union. Brian Lightman is getting great press with his stories of sacked heads and how awful it is. But ask a sacked head or a head under pressure what support ASCL offered and it can be summed up in one sentence ” get yourself a package and get out. ” No wonder there were 120 heads sacked last year. We have a union representing heads which is not fit for purpose and more heads will be sacked because there is no one to go into battle with them. Beware those of you who think that it must only be poor heads who get the push. You won’t know the reality until you join the ranks of “failed heads” and all you hear from your ex head colleagues and ASCL is silence. And no I’m not a “failed” head…….yet, but an ex colleague I hold in high regard is so it can happen to anyone. Maybe it’s time heads had their own union again or perhaps ASCL might remember what their core purpose is meant to be. These are my views, not the views of my school.

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