Rethinking the Musicality of Headship: The Difficult Second Album?

Rethinking the Musicality of Headship: The Difficult Second Album?

We are delighted to offer a new programme for serving and experienced headteachers, SSAT’s Rethinking Headship. In preparation for this programme, we have summarised and synthesised recent research focused on headteacher retention. Our aim, in this phase of our work is to stimulate discussion about how individual headteachers rethink their approach to headship. At the same time, we want to draw on your insights gained through the wisdom of your experience to provoke a rethinking of headship at a systemic level.

Bittersweet symphony

Headship is, or at least should be, the sweetest of symphonies. Working with, and sometimes unlocking, the amazing talents of both children and adults in a vibrant and endlessly fascinating workplace and doing a job that is full or moral purpose. What’s not to like about that?

But, as any headteacher will tell you, the job isn’t quite as simple as that. The humans we work with are, well, all too human (ourselves fully included). The vibrancy of the school or college setting can be cacophonous at times. And the morality of our work doesn’t always lend itself to quick fixes and easy solutions. I suspect that the greatest joy of the role is in addressing these complications with verve (see what I did there), even if they are difficult at the time.

In short, our work in leading school communities is incredibly complex and, consequently, neverendingly paradoxical: the bitter and the sweet are always present at the same time. We know this and we sign up to it when we choose the role of composer and conductor. Although we sometimes wish things were neat and tidy, we know that orchestrating schools isn’t simple.

The times, they are a-changing

Dylan (Bob, not Wiliam) wasn’t wrong. The waters around schools have risen, leaving our staff – not least of all, headteachers – drenched to the bone, swimming hard to avoid sinking like a stone. More school leaders, according to Greany et al in ‘Leading after lockdown’, recognise that they are ‘sinking’ than claim they are ‘thriving’, with up to 40% considering leaving before retirement. A greater number say they are ‘surviving’, which doesn’t inspire huge confidence.

Our overview of recent research into headteacher retention paints a bleak picture of the future for our profession. Not only are retention rates declining, particularly for those with significant experience, but new headteacher recruitment is at risk. Senior leaders and other staff are increasingly reluctant to subject themselves and their families to the rigours of the role. Too much bitter and too little sweet, they chorus.

The reasons, according to research findings, are manifold. The role has become more (too) complex in recent times, full of disharmony and discordance. National policy, especially around accountability, is calling the tunes more often than the authentic local accountability that headteachers wish to serve. The patchwork nature of governance within our school and college system can lead to too much or too little autonomy for those taking up the role.

You can’t always get what you want

These are long-term challenges that have been accelerated in recent times. The nature of such challenges means that support for our beleaguered profession is vital, but this too is lacking if the evidence base is to be believed. Preparation and induction programmes do not effectively prepare and induct. National, local, and school support is missing, ad hoc, or limited in nature. Professional learning for experienced headteachers does not attend to the demands of the role.

But if you try, as the lyrics go, sometimes you just might find you get what you need. The research also indicates that governors can have a positive impact on retention when they focus equally on support as they do on accountability, attending to headteacher working conditions. Peer and specialist support, through coaching, mentoring and supervision can also make a big difference. Equally important to headteacher retention is role-focused professional learning, which is where SSAT’s Rethinking Headship programme, launching for 2024-25 comes in.

The long and winding road

At SSAT, we fully concur with the most important of the research findings that headteachers are important for school staff, pupils, families, and their community. They are the second most influential factor on pupil achievement, provide instructional leadership for the institution and headteacher retention is intimately linked to teacher retention.

Considering other insights from the evidence base, it is important to note too that the wellbeing of the headteacher has a profound impact on school and college culture: to mix my musical metaphors, they can literally take a sad song and make it better (or vice versa). Perhaps the most important research finding, for me, is that headteacher longevity in the role – and especially in role at the same place – further improves good school outcomes and turnover.

But ensuring that headteachers stay the course to get to this position is, by all metrics, the thing that all of us interested in education should be most worried about. Serving headteachers might well resonate with Lennon and McCartney’s refrain, “Many times I’ve been alone and many times I’ve cried. Anyway, you’ll never know the many ways I’ve tried.” Such feelings are bearable up to a point. The evidence suggests that we have reached and breached that point.

Where is the love? (not Wiliam) had it right when he said “let your soul just gravitate to the love” because it doesn’t take much digging into the literature to discover that headship, and particularly lengthy headship, is an act of love. Making a difference remains the key driver for those taking up the role so they can play a part in addressing social inequities.

Returning to the bittersweet nature of headship, postholders see relationship-building, the development of others and meeting their needs as their key responsibilities. But this creates a tension between what they want to do and what the role allows them to do. Headteachers feel the weight of responsibility for others as a burden and, because of their attachment to their community and the limitations to their agency, they struggle to switch off from work.

SSAT’s Rethinking Headship seeks to begin with where we are as a profession, rather than where we want to be or where we once were. Our intention is to initially test the research findings outlined in this post and less playfully organised in our summary and synthesis document. To achieve this, we are looking to capture the experience and expertise of headteachers, both current and former. In a very challenging context, we want to hear about what you love about the role and what barriers there are for you in loving it as you would wish.

Move on up

There are several ways in which you could contribute your own musical signature to SSAT’s Rethinking Headship. Our intention throughout this important work is to engage headteachers in a community of inquiry (“into the steeple of beautiful people” as Curtis Mayfield has it).

The starting point for becoming involved with other headteachers wrestling with the same issues is target=”_blank”>completing a survey. It will take about 5-15 minutes to complete, depending on how much you wish to contribute, and asks about:

  • You and your context.
  • Your thoughts on the research findings about headteacher retention.
  • Your experiences of rethinking headship and the blockers and enablers to this.
  • Your views on how we need to rethink headship at a national level.
  • How much further you would like to be involved in SSAT’s Rethinking Headship work.

If you would like to be involved beyond completing the survey, there will be opportunities to:

Once you complete the survey, you will be able to share your contact details so we can send you a copy of the full summary and synthesis of recent research into headteacher retention.

Complete the survey

The man in the mirror

This blog was written by Keven Bartle, a Senior Education Lead with SSAT and headteacher for nine years. In that time, Keven had to rethink his approach to headship on two occasions. The first was in light of a challenging inspection judgment (no message could have been any clearer) and the second, soon afterwards, was in response to the pandemic. Now recently post-headship, Keven has developed SSAT’s Rethinking Leadership work to support and sustain headteachers who want to “make that change”.

Leave a Reply

You can use these tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

Developing Subject Leaders in our Primary Schools

24 April 2024

Why we need to rethink our practice around behaviour to better meet the needs of today’s young people

30 April 2024