Part I: A galaxy not so far away

Preparation for school leadership – challenges and the way forward

As a senior education lead at SSAT, it continues to be a great privilege to work with inspiring, and aspiring, school leaders. They share a commitment to improving the life chances of our young people, often working in very challenging contexts. The engagement in our recent Leading for Equity and Excellence programme bears witness to the strong moral purpose that sustains and drives so many leaders.

And yet, we know that as a school system we are struggling to retain our best leaders and prepare them fully for the realities of leadership in schools, particularly at headship.

Some fascinating research by my colleague, Keven Bartle, has focused on this issue and the findings make for stark reading. Our report “Labouring to Love Headship”, which will be launched on 18th July 2024, is based on the insights of 236 headteachers with almost 2000 years of experience between them. I encourage you to attend the launch event and download the report. Here are some headline figures:

  • 47% of respondents in the second five years of headship either want to leave headship within three years or feel that they are stuck in the role
  • 34% of respondents said that they had very little or no preparation for headship and had to “sink or swim” whilst learning “on the job”
  • 86% of respondents said that the NPQH was either poor or insufficient preparation for the role of headteacher as they have experienced it

As our report points out, existing headteacher preparation, induction and training are seen as insufficient for the practicalities and complexity of the role. Individual support, peer networks and qualifications are better valued.

If this sounds like a depressingly familiar story, it doesn’t have to be and it is certainly something that needs to addressed.

The millennium started with much promise and hope. The foundation of the National College for School Leadership (NCSL) in 2000 was a flagship statement about the importance of school leadership and England’s commitment to offering world leading development programmes. It was a bold and ambitious project, that drew global attention. However, nearly a quarter of a century later, the feedback from headteachers shows that there is much work to be done.

So what happened? Well, a quick look in the rear view mirror provides some clues. Following a new government in 2010, we saw NCSL become an executive agency of the Department for Education in 2012 and merge with the Teaching Agency to form the National College for Teaching and Leadership. This coincided with the removal of the requirement for headteachers to complete the National Professional Qualification for Headship (NPQH). Since then we have seen a decade in which National Professional Qualifications (NPQs) have gone through various changes leading to tighter government control, more prescriptive content, a small number of favoured NPQ providers and Ofsted inspections of those providers. Is this preparation for headship, or compliance? With the increasing pressures on school budgets, many schools have taken advantage of free places on these courses yet not found the training sufficient to retain their leaders or equip them fully for the challenges of the job.

The 2000’s also saw growth in schools networks and specialist schools overseen by the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust. There was a focus on personalising learning, based on work by Professor David Hargreaves. It provided valuable opportunities, and resources, for schools to collaborate and benefit from peer networks. The emphasis on personalising learning, recognised both the uniqueness of every learner and the very different contexts in which schools work. Collaboration and peer learning provide professionals with valuable time together to share, learn and support each other to solve common problems.

As we look forward to the next quarter of a century, we will need strong school leadership and investment in high quality training, support and networks for our current and future leaders. At SSAT we are committed to working towards a brighter future for education.

In our second blog Keven Bartle will reflect on what a brighter future might look like.

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