New term, new challenges: what’s in store for heads this school year
As schools re-open after months, it can feel like the only thing that’s certain this school year is uncertainty. How will headteachers navigate the challenges that await?
Being a headteacher has always been tough, but it’s even more so in these unprecedented times. Ahead of the start of term, I caught up with five heads from across our school leadership programmes, including some who are brand new in post and have joined our new pilot Headship First: an eight-month programme designed to develop and support new headteachers in the early stages of their career. This is what they had to say.
The joys and passion of leading a school
Crisis management - on top of dealing with a the complex, long-term priorities of a school - can push a head into a vicious cycle of ever-escalating problems. What can get lost is the passion that inspired us to become heads in the first place.
When I asked our partner heads what inspired them to take on headship, they said it gave them opportunities to:
- support and change the life chances of young people
- address disadvantage and have a wide-reaching impact on the community they serve
- make a difference through setting the tone and ethos of a school, as well as shaping its direction
- work with and inspire the next generation of children within their community
- lead a team of staff to be enthusiastic, engaging and creative
They also spoke about what they enjoyed most about the job (and its wider importance):
- “It’s the best job in the school - talking to the pupils about their work, what they’re learning and supporting them and walking the corridors, visiting lessons and feeling that powerful sense of ownership and responsibility for the pupils and the school.”
- “Working with a wide range of different people across the community.”
- “Everyday communication with young people and staff, which gives you instant feedback about the role you play in their lives and the impact of the improvement you have led.”
- “No day is ever the same.”
- “Problem solving and fixing things when they arise.”
When the pressures of a country creep into schools
However, when I asked them about the pressures they faced (NOT taking lockdown into consideration), they raised the following issues:
Financial pressures: Funding was a significant inhibitor to providing quality learning experiences for a significant number of heads. Even before lockdown, the financial stress on our schools was at a critical point. The Sutton Trust’s 2019 report on School Funding and the Pupil Premium showed that 69% of secondary leaders had reported making cuts to teaching staff and 27% of these leaders also agreed that they were using Pupil Premium funding to plug gaps in their budgets.
Wellbeing and recruitment: Many heads shared concern over the wellbeing of young people, work-life balance and the difficulty of being able to recruit teachers. This last concern reinforces the findings of the Sutton Trust’s July 2019 report, The Recruitment Gap, which showed that over half of headteachers in schools serving ther most deprived communities were concerned about finding suitable teachers. Additionally, around 80% of teachers in these schools indicated that recruitment issues were affecting the quality of education.
High-stakes accountability: Changing goal posts at the sector level and the high-stakes accountability that can arise out of Ofsted gradings can hinder schools’ ability to improve in meaningful and sustainable ways. The heads’ reflections were echoed in this TES article, aptly headlined Headteachers 'feel like they are in the trenches', which explored how Ofsted grades and school league tables are pitting schools against one another. Competition rather than collaboration is yet another barrier to schools.
And then there’s COVID-19
These pressures have further frustrated heads in their battle to support young people and their families through lockdown (not to mention their current attempts to re-open schools safely). Our partner school heads, highlighted that they felt:
- pressure to ensure the safety and wellbeing of their communities
- pressure to respond to ever-changing guidance and advice and the resulting constant amendment of risk assessments
- fear of missing something (imposter syndrome)
These pressures are once again increased by heads having to:
- support young people to recover lost learning and social skills
- strategically restructure curricula within tight time frames. This means consolidation and new learning will be tested in exams that have made very few accommodations for the national disruption of learning caused by lockdown
- address the post-lockdown needs of schools to rebuild their cultures
- address that their community’s trust in them has been undermined at a national level by the results crisis, indicating hard work is not a passport out of disadvantage
Thus, it's nothing short of amazing that any head still maintains the passion of being a leader in their communities.
With all these longstanding national pressures for school improvement, essential operational risk assessments and planning for a safe re-opening (alongside dealing with self-doubt and holding everyone’s future in your hands), a headteacher’s strategic focus can get crowded out - putting learning and developing young peoples’ potential in the background.
We want to take action and help
To ensure schools and their communities thrive and to address the unfairness and disadvantage faced by so many of our communities, great teachers need support from brilliant leaders. Brilliant leaders deserve the opportunity to grow and develop in an environment that is collaborative, not competitive, and to know that they’re not alone. They’re just one coaching session away from meaningful, sustainable help.
Our leadership programmes help leaders feel less isolated in dealing with this overload of pressures. Whether this is supporting aspiring heads through their National Professional Qualifications (NPQs), building sustainable senior leadership teams with Leading Together, or getting support from peer networks and communities of deliberate practice. All of our programmes offer the kind of critical (but non-judgemental) one-to-one coaching, bespoke support and collaboration that can make a real difference for a school leader. And they’re not just for former Teach First trainees – they’re available to all teachers and leaders in eligible schools across England, no matter what route they first trained.
This month, we’re excited to launch a new offering – our Headship First programme, designed specifically to develop and support new headteachers early in their career. The programme recognises the unique combination of national and school-based pressures facing heads today, along with the urgency that they face, being expected to know (and have answers for) everything even when newly in-role.
The Headship First pilot is set to welcome nine headteachers in Primary and Secondary settings across five regions, including the East, West Midlands, North West, London and Wales. They’ll receive access to expert support from an experienced headteacher, a personal coach and a supportive peer-to-peer network of over 70 headteachers.
We want a fair education for every child. By helping headteachers to hit the ground running, young people from disadvantaged communities can reach their true potential – in school, and beyond.
Over the coming months we’ll share more about what’s working and what’s not. Throughout it all, we want your feedback – you can get in touch by contacting @teachfirst on Twitter.
My thanks go to following Headteachers for the contribution to this blog post: Raza Ali, Dan Botting of The Bobby Moor Academy, David Crosby of The Kings Leadership Academy Bolton, Andrew Murphey of Chilwell Croft Academy, Andrew Rannard of De La Salle School and Jason Roberts of The Albion Academy.