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The challenges of school leadership – facing them with courage and moral purpose

Dan Belcher, SSAT’s Head of Secondary, writes…

Just last week a headline in the Express and Star (Wolverhampton) warned ‘Headteacher crisis to hit Wolverhampton schools as dozens of leaders retire’ stating that 47% of current headteachers are due to retire in the next five years.

This headline could be repeated in many regions across the country. There is an urgent need to develop senior leaders and to persuade them to fill the void. The perceived challenges of school leadership are putting many off. It has become a job that ‘only the brave’ seek.

The statistics bear this out – fewer deputies want headship, more heads are choosing retirement and heads in post are increasingly expected to make up the shortfall by becoming executive headteachers and CEOs. The role of headteacher needs to become attractive again and we need to look after those we’ve got. It is both an awesome and a wonderful responsibility.

Over the past couple of months two blogs on this theme have captured the immense challenge of headship, but also the great privilege it represents. This first an open letter to the Secretary of State Nicky Morgan from Vic Goddard sharing from personal experience the huge physical and emotional cost of the job and pleading the case for change.

The second, by former deputy head Chris Hildrew, responding to the challenge and accusation from Sir Michael Wilshaw that deputies need to stop being ‘so feeble’ and ‘have some guts’, by stepping up to headship. Wilshaw may have expressed it rather crudely and provocatively, but he is right in this – it does take courage.

No matter what type of school they work in, whatever the Ofsted label and wherever the school is located, school leaders face increasing pressures and expectations.

For those leading in challenging circumstances such as disadvantaged catchment areas, there are societal needs to meet (cuts to social services are heightening the demands on schools) and difficulties in recruiting and retaining high quality teachers.

For those in an Ofsted category – including good but ‘coasting’ schools – there is the threat of forced academisation, sponsorship and potential sacking.

For those in an Ofsted category – including good but ‘coasting’ schools – there is the threat of forced academisation, sponsorship and potential sacking

Those already judged outstanding do not escape either: there is more to lose – such as the ‘outstanding’ badge and the opportunities that come with it, teaching school and national leader of education status. And leaders of successful schools are expected to shoulder the responsibility of improving the system whilst simultaneously raising standards in the ‘mother ship’.

Leaders of successful schools are expected to shoulder the responsibility of improving the system whilst simultaneously raising standards

All feel the weight of the performance and accountability agenda, the constant shifting of the goalposts and the direction of policy. The system is placing huge demands on our school leaders and they need our encouragement and full support.

The famous ‘If’ poem by Rudyard Kipling contains many a wise word for a would-be school leader. Given the particularly fragile nature of headship the first two lines seem particularly apt: ‘If you can keep your head when all around you are losing theirs…’ (pun intended).

To succeed as a school leader you have to rise above the outside pressures, to keep your eyes on the prize and even enjoy the journey.

Five things to keep hold of:

  1. Your moral compass: never lose sight of the moral purpose and why you came into teaching. Ask yourself the question ‘What do I see as the central purpose of my school?’ Hold on to your answer, perhaps even pin it on your wall, and let it guide you through the difficult decisions of headship. Remember moral purpose is ultimately far more than higher examination results; it should be the driver of all action. All other aims (building learning communities, developing leadership, leading change etc.) should be in the service of this (Fullan, 2003 – The Moral Imperative of School Leadership)
  2. A sense of humour: as Edmund Hillary once said ‘a sense of humour [is] one of the most important things on a big expedition. When you’re in a difficult or dangerous situation, or when you’re depressed about the chances of success, someone who can make you laugh eases the tension.’
  3. Personal humility and professional will: Jim Collins, author of Good to Great (2001), highlights these qualities as the hallmark of the level 5 leader – more Socrates than Caesar – humble and self-effacing but maintaining unwavering resolve. The level 5 leader ‘looks in the mirror, not out of the window, to apportion responsibility for poor results, never blaming other people, external factors or bad luck’ (professional will). But importantly, s/he ‘looks out of the window, not in the mirror, to apportion credit for the success of the company – to other people, external factors, and good luck’ (personal humility).
  4. Networks of support: support will come from many sources – your family, friends and professional networks such as SSAT. There are so many ways to engage in supportive professional learning communities locally, regionally, nationally, online and face-to-face. Whatever your preferences, it is important to know that you are not alone, that there are others facing the same dilemmas and decisions, and that in sharing we not only can find collective solutions to common problems – we also feel better.
  5. Your perspective: policies will change, Ofsted frameworks will come and go, and there will be good days and bad. Look after yourself, your health (mental and physical), make time to rest and to exercise, for family and friends. Remember the wisdom of Solomon: ‘There is a time for everything and a season for every activity under the heavens’ (Ecclesiastes 3).

If you are a new, existing or aspiring headteacher SSAT would love to support you on your leadership journey and in building supportive professional networks.

Do visit the leadership pages of our website to find out more about our leadership programmes: New Headteachers, Leading Outstanding Schools and Executive Headteachers. New cohorts for each programme are recruiting now for autumn term launch dates, you can book your place online, or to talk to a member of the team contact us by email or call 01823 446 974.


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