Headteacher retention and governance

Towards Regional Solutions?

As we hit the home straight of this odd general election campaign, I wanted to outline one of the greatest fears I have for the education sector which no manifesto pledges seem to fully address.

And it’s a fear that comes in two parts.

The first part of this is the state of headship and the way in which it is fuelling a potentially disastrous flight from the profession. The second part is the state of governance, notably the risk that fragmentation has, perhaps fatally, overtaken cohesion within our sector.

Let’s start with headship, drawing from SSAT’s synthesis of research into retention, and from our rethinking headship survey which we will publish in the runup to our event on 18th July. The evidence base clearly points to declining headteacher retention because of increased levels of complexity for school leaders alongside existing challenges from policy change and accountability.

But perhaps just as importantly, the extant literature also strongly suggests that the balance of autonomy within our education system is not right and that this is also impacting headteacher retention. And this is where governance in all its guises (local authorities, multi-academy trusts, stand-alone academy trustees, faith trusts and diocesan authorities, and so on) comes in.

Our yet-to-be-published research report, ‘Labouring to Love Headship’, confirms some of these findings based on the insights of headteachers who, between them, have almost two thousand years of experience in role. From this group of respondents some startling data has emerged:

  • 47% of headteachers with between 5 and 10 years of experience want to leave headship before retirement or feel stuck in the role because of their financial or family situations.
  • 51% identified various strands of accountability as presenting their greatest challenges.
  • 48% explained that these and other daily challenges are incessant and unreasonable.
  • 40% say that they have little or no formalised support for meeting the role’s challenges.

Those who mentioned local authorities, described their support as being of poor quality even if well-intentioned, whilst those who mentioned multi-academy trusts said that support was often good but sometimes brutal or toxic. Comments about individual chairs of governors managed to combine all shades of the above: positive, negative, well-meaning but limited, destructive.

This is where the two parts of my fear come together in the thesis behind this blog: that the lack of systemic coherence in governance is leaving headteachers unsupported in the face of the overwhelming challenges that are facing our staff, students, families and communities.

So, what is to be done? More to the point, what is being proposed by the party that with only a week to go until polling opens is being projected by BBC’s poll tracker to secure between 35% and 45% (as on 27th June) of the national vote? And will this do anything to restore the cohesion of our systems of governance so that headteachers are better supported and, hopefully, better retained?

The Labour Party – incoming?

Back in 2019, the Labour Party manifesto was quite clear about their plans to restore cohesion within the education system. Their pledges included the restoration of the traditional roles of local authorities and local governing bodies. Regional bodies of a newly created National Education System would be responsible for “oversight and coordination” and peer support.

In 2024, the restoration of the traditional forms of local governance and local authorities are not being pledged, perhaps unsurprisingly and – if our survey findings are right – perhaps for the best. There is, however, a continuation of the 2019 theme of regional bodies being empowered. The manifesto has a brief mention of Regional Improvement Teams whose role will be to ‘enhance school-to-school support and spread best practice’. But that’s all that the manifesto has to say.

What may offer more of an insight into the future coherence of governance for schools is the report produced by ex-PM Gordon Brown’s ‘Commission on the UK’s Future’. This report offers a blueprint for greater alignment of the devolved governments of Scotland and Wales, which have control over education policy, and the emergent metro mayors and combined authorities.

Intriguingly, this report says that local authorities should be better empowered to enhance pre-school childcare and that regional entities should be enabled to help deliver better coordinated post-school further education and skills development. When it comes to the bit in the middle – the coherence of school governance – this report is as empty as a doughnut.

And yet I can’t help thinking that the incoming Labour government (if such it is to be) is likely to be forced sooner rather than later to confront issues around coherence in school governance for the sake of, among other things, headteacher support and retention. Our broken system cannot be repaired piecemeal. Regional Improvement Teams are a start but, if they mirror the abortive Regional Schools Commissioner project without tackling the democratic deficit of our current systems of governance, then the outcome is likely to be just as pitiful.

Having watched Keir Starmer’s pitch to Grimsby voters in one of the televised hustings earlier in the month, he seemed more-than-usually enlivened when talking about local engagement in local decision-making. And whilst Michael Gove may have made the job of regional approaches to governance more difficult in his education reforms, his work in scaling up regional bodies and metro mayors in recent times may also help provide some of the answers or a direction of travel.

Another change that may help us to establish regional oversight of school governance is the fact that eleven of the twelve metro mayors represent the Labour Party. If that patchwork can become more like a blanket in the coming years, why would we not imagine that someone like Andy Burnham can play a bigger role in coordinating the work of schools in Greater Manchester. Whether or not he would have the same responsibilities as the devolved national governments is another matter for another day, but that would be a very interesting discussion indeed.

We are where we are, though, with no grand plans around school governance to better support headteachers and enable their retention. But my instincts tell me to watch this space.

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