The next five years: 10 challenges for school leaders

Robert Hill.

A new government with fresh enthusiasm for pushing its policies further is not the only challenge that school leaders face over the next five years. The aging teaching population, the rise in pupil numbers and the implacable forward march of technology would have substantial impacts under any government. In this blog, the first of two based on my lecture for the London Centre for Leadership in Learning today, 19 May, I describe 10 challenges facing school leaders over the next five years. It’s a pretty formidable list.

  1. The rise in pupil numbers. By 2020 there will be 650,000 more pupils in the school system than there are today as the pupil bulge continues in the primary sector and starts to feed through into secondary schools. Finding (and funding) the extra forms of entry and commissioning new schools will be hard enough for local authorities but will be made harder because of the fragmented nature of the planning process. 250,000 of the new places are to come via the 500 free schools that the Conservatives have promised – although this implies that free schools would only be approved in locations where places are needed. In addition their manifesto also said that all good schools (including free schools and grammar schools) would be allowed to expand. Stitching together these elements to ensure every child has a place is going to be demanding unless local authorities are given a say in the establishment and expansion of free schools and popular schools.

  1. Teacher recruitment. Stories and surveys abound about the problems schools are having in recruiting sufficient teachers. Over the past three years 6,000 fewer teachers have been trained than the government planned for and the number of teacher applicants holding an offer at the end of April 2015 was down by 3,300 compared with a year before. Maths, physics and languages are among the subjects where there are particular recruitment pressures. This throws into sharp relief the government’s pledge to train an extra 17,500 maths and physics teachers. Questions remain about the coherence and effectiveness of different pathways into teaching and cynics are convinced that the government will use shortages to encourage more use of unqualified teachers.
  1. Growing the leadership pipeline. A great school system requires excellent leaders. Around 10,000 heads, deputies and assistant heads are aged 55 and over and many will be retiring over the next few years. Filling headship vacancies is already a particular challenge in the primary sector and the threat of replacing heads of schools deemed to be ‘Requiring Improvement’ will almost certainly provide a further disincentive for people to apply. The National College for Teaching and Leadership is all but defunct and questions remain over whether the licensing model for leadership development will continue. Meanwhile, the DfE seems to be stepping into the breach with national schemes such as Talented Leaders.
  1. Funding constraints. The Conservatives plan to protect spending per pupil – including the extra pupils coming into schools – but without allowing for the impact of inflation. The Institute for Fiscal Studies calculates that this will, when combined with pension and National Insurance changes and likely increases in salaries, amount to a 12% cut in schools budgets over the next four of five years. The Pupil Premium will also be protected at current rates but no guarantees have been given for post 16 funding – which has already been hard hit. It’s not clear whether the new government will press ahead with a single funding formula for schools or what will happen if schools and academies start running up big deficits.
  1. Curriculum and assessment change. Arguably this is the biggest area of challenge with the introduction of a baseline assessment for 4 year olds, new SATs at Key Stage (KS) 2, compulsory resits for those not reaching Level 4, new curricula and GCSEs at KS4, a requirement for all pupils to take the Ebacc subjects, and new A level syllabuses and exams – not to mention a big rise in apprenticeships. This level of change requires schools to make a huge and sustained investment in teacher development particularly as it can take four or five years for teachers to fully embed curriculum change in the classroom.
  1. Accountability measures. The primary, secondary and post 16 sectors are all due to have new performance reporting regimes with the design of the Progress 8 framework for reporting GCSE outcomes proving particularly contentious. The changes, when linked with new grading structures, will have the downside – often overlooked by politicians – of making comparisons over time much more difficult. Inspection and performance measures for academy groups are also set to become the norm and in September 2015 Ofsted is introducing a revised inspection framework – which if history is anything to go by is unlikely to be the last!
  1. Improving attainment. The latest information from the OECD suggests that the overall performance of schools in England is average, or just above, compared with other jurisdictions. We are certainly not world-beaters. So the challenge to improve outcomes will continue – particularly for disadvantaged students. While some schools are closing gaps in attainment between free school meals pupils and other pupils, the gap remains stubbornly large. Set against a backdrop of child poverty rising in the years to 2020 it looks a tall order to expect schools alone to carry the main burden of promoting social mobility.
  1. Impact of technology. Schools vary enormously in the extent to which they are harnessing technology effectively to support learning. Research by Ofcom suggests that we hit our peak confidence and understanding of digital communications and technology when we are in our mid-teens. It drops gradually up to our late 50s and then falls rapidly from 60 and beyond. This surely reinforces the challenge to enable and empower students to co-design with teachers in a disciplined way how they learn and acquire knowledge. The potential for technology to support teachers working with teachers is also woefully underdeveloped.
  1. Managing mission creep. In 2010 the coalition government said they wanted to focus schools on their core mission of educating young people – and the Ofsted inspection regime was pared back accordingly. But since then a whole range of new expectations have been placed on schools: keeping children safe and preventing sexual exploitation, reducing obesity, ensuring mental wellbeing, promoting British values (and preventing extremism), developing personal and employment skills as well as knowledge and providing childcare. School leaders could be forgiven for being confused about the scope of their role – and this confusion in turn belies a lack of consensus in society about what education is for.
  1. Maturing the self-improving system. The rhetoric is all about groups of schools and school leaders being in the driving seat in leading improvement. But the role of school leaders in facilitating support, development and leadership of the system sits alongside the respective responsibilities of local authorities, regional schools commissioners and teaching school councils. Different roles are being exercised by different players in different parts of the country. The challenge must be to create a more coherent middle tier strategy. The Conservative government’s instinct will be to create more academy trusts, even though there is not much difference in performance when you look at the distribution of schools within local authority ‘control’ and compare it with those in multi-academy trusts.

This is a fairly daunting set of challenges – and does not even include issues such as creating high qualify careers advice for all young people or the doubling of early years provision for three to five year olds. Some school leaders may feel a sense of foreboding about the months and years ahead. However, in my second blog I’ll go on to argue that there are also big opportunities for school leaders – if they have the vision, commitment and discipline to seize them.

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Posted in Education policy, Leadership and management
2 comments on “The next five years: 10 challenges for school leaders
  1. […] the school system. This blog, the second based on my London Centre for Leadership in Learning lecture on 19 May, should be read alongside this set of […]

  2. […] teaching. Add to this the fact that 10,000 deputy leaders and headteachers are aged over 55 and approaching retirement, and it’s no surprise that it is increasingly difficult to find leaders for schools. In a […]

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