Time to move on?

Bookmark and Share

Perhaps the biggest quandary of all in headship – should you stay on in the job when you feel a change of career might be needed?

Headteacher David Braithwaite had been at St James’ Primary School for ten years. In that time, he had seen a whole range of changes. Education was very different in many respects, although the children stayed the same and so did most of the parents.

David had had two Ofsteds during his time as headteacher. Both had been largely successful, certainly from his point of view. The school was in a challenging area and attainment was difficult to hold above the national average. He knew it was always going to be a struggle to keep it in that ‘satisfactory’ category but so far, with some good paper shuffling, dedicated teachers and, by and large, a plan that worked, he had managed.

Now, coming into a new academic year, he felt an enormous sense of lethargy as he began to put together the annual timetable. No doubt this year would hold new challenges and he looked forward to these, but he also had a sense of struggling for new ideas and a great sense of déjà vu. What he was drafting out looked suspiciously like what he had drafted the year before and the year before that. David started to sense that perhaps he had lost some of his enthusiasm for the job.

Maybe it was time to go.

Could he really leave?
What were David's options? Some of his colleagues had gone on to be consultants or school improvement partners - some now worked for the local authority in different capacities. A few had gone on to take up headship of other schools. He knew of someone who went on to be a freelance writer and someone else who was teaching drama in different schools. With a little imagination, he was sure that there was something out there for him. After all, being a headteacher was a very good preparation for many lines of work.

But was it the right time for the school? He knew that the governing bodies of some of the local schools were interested in academy status. Although it wasn’t really on the cards for St James’, the changing climate was already making everyone restless and concerned for the future of education locally. What effect would several of their neighbours turning independent have upon them?

He decided to confide in his chair of governors:

David: Helen, I need to talk to you about something.
Helen: That sounds ominous. You’re not thinking of resigning are you? I don’t know what we’d do without you.
David: Well, as it happens, it had crossed my mind.
Helen: I was only joking! You can’t seriously be thinking of going? We had our best SATs results ever last year.
David: I know.
Helen: Is there something wrong? Aren’t the governing body supporting you enough?
David: It’s nothing like that. I couldn’t ask for a more supportive governing body. It’s just I’m not sure I’ve that much more to offer the school and I’m starting to feel that I need a different type of challenge.
Helen: I think with all the changes over the next few years, there’s going to be plenty to keep you on your toes. We said we’d look at our curriculum this year – I know how passionate you are about that.
David: I know, but perhaps I’m not the right person to do it. It might be better for someone new, who’s not so closely involved with the school and its history to take the lead.
Helen: Have you talked to anyone else about this?
David: Not yet. I just wanted to mention it to you first. It’s just something that crossed my mind and…
Helen: Well can you uncross it because you’re getting me worried here. Greenpark’s head went only six months ago and look at all the trouble they had finding another one. We always struggle recruiting – I can’t imagine finding a new head would be easy. Anyway, we’re very happy with you.

David went away from the discussion feeling confused. Helen had been more than complimentary about his contributions to the school and to hear her was reassuring. It would be easy to continue. But he still didn’t feel reassured that it was necessarily the right thing to do. Perhaps he should talk to his school improvement partner?

He knew that Brian had resigned from his headship a couple of years before and, although closer to retirement than David, he seemed to be enjoying his new role of advising schools rather than being in the middle of the maelstrom.

David: Brian, I’ve been wondering about resigning and trying something different.
Brian: What’s brought this on?
David: I just don’t feel I’ve very much more to offer St James’ and I’m starting to feel that perhaps I’m not giving the school the best that I could.
Brian: I don’t think many people would agree with you there. You’re a mainstay of the school and the community.
David: So what made you decide to resign?
Brian: I’m older than you for a start. What with grandchildren and a few health problems and I’d enjoyed my secondment to the LA, it was just the right thing to do when the opportunity came up. I had a good deputy who could take over in the meantime if they didn’t appoint straight away.
David: And that’s the other thing. It’s the strongest senior leadership team we’ve had for a while. They would benefit from the opportunity for a re-shuffle. Dawn might even apply herself. Do you have any regrets?
Brian: Not at all. I miss my office and the contact with children and staff. I still keep in contact with some of my staff. But overall I don’t miss the paperwork and I don’t miss the continuous cycle of new legislation. I still have to read through it but I’m not responsible any more for implementing it. The accountability is different and I do go home and think about other things rather than target-setting and inspections.
David: And that’s part of the problem. It’s taken over my life and no matter how much I try to delegate it doesn’t seem to get any better.
Brian: What would you do instead?
Well, I did wonder about perhaps being a SIP myself, perhaps combining it with being a consultant.
Brian: There are certainly opportunities out there but it’s not the most settled time to be thinking about it. No-one is too sure what will happen to independent consultants over the next few uears. And there’s quite a few out there already. What about being an interim headteacher? I was reading an article on the NAHT website about it. If you want to talk some more, give me a call. Just don’t rush into anything. Once you’re really into the swing of the new term you might feel very differently.

Serious considerations
David went away and decided to map out some of the pros and cons. Perhaps this way he would see more clearly what the right plan of action would be. He wrote down some of the many questions he had and the arguments for and against his going. He then thought about how the ‘against’ might be tackled.

1. Can I afford it financially?
For the move: Children are grown up and self-supporting (by and large). Mortgage is paid off.

Against the move: I have got used to a comfortable lifestyle. It’s not cheap. There are still commitments – car, holidays, running costs for a large house. A regular monthly salary is a luxury in these times that perhaps I underestimate the value of.
Addressing the ‘against’:
Perhaps it’s time we looked at downsizing the house. It’s too big for us anyway and that would reduce running costs as well as giving us a little bit of security if it takes me a while to establish myself. I have a good reputation as a headteacher and if it doesn’t work out I should be able to find a new position with the current shortage of heads.

2. Will the school manage without me?
For the move: There is a strong senior leadership team; there are no major issues for the school. The last Ofsted was positive, if not glowing. It’s a good basis for a new head with new ideas to move in.

Against the move: The environment is changing and there is uncertainty at the moment in relation to independent schools in the area. There are difficulties recruiting new heads and St James’ doesn’t find recruiting new staff easy.
Addressing the ‘against’: There will always be uncertainty. There is never a perfect time to go. With a good deputy in place, even if they did struggle to recruit (presuming she’s not interested), Dawn could definitely be a very good acting headteacher in the meantime. The changes in environment will go ahead with or without me, and someone else is just as likely to be able to tackle any issues it raises. It’s a strong governing body who will give any new head the support they need.

3. Will I manage without the school?
For the move: There are many aspects of the job that I’m not happy with now. Targets are one of them and the practice it leads us into as a school. I don’t agree with channelling resources into groups of learners for reasons more linked to school improvement than their individual needs.

Against the move: I would miss the children and the staff. We’ve gone through so many good and bad times together and I couldn’t ask for a more supportive environment to work in. I’ve been lucky and I know many heads have got it far harder than me. Perhaps I’m just being selfish and it is a ‘blip’.

Addressing the ‘against’: I’m not indispensable in the end. This is a job and, just as I replaced someone, so someone will replace me and bring a fresh perspective. In the end, the staff and children will move on themselves.

4. What could I do?
For the move: Lots of headteachers move on to do secondments or work as consultants and SIPs. There’s also this idea of being an interim headteacher. That would certainly be interesting and financially I’d be okay.

Against the move: Is there enough work out there? What if I didn’t like it and couldn’t get back in or found myself in a school that I really wasn’t happy with? I’ve heard of several heads that’ve moved on to second headships and wished they hadn’t.

Addressing the ‘against’: If I don’t try it, I’ll never find out. Not doing anything is a decision in itself, an easy one perhaps but not necessarily the right one.

Ask the family
David knew this wasn’t a decision he could make on his own. In the end, it was his family who mattered most and, although dedicated to his job and very fond of his school, he’d spent enough time consulting them and needed to spend time consulting those at home.

Talking to his wife and children, it became clear that they felt he was too wrapped up in his work. The Saturdays and Sundays that he spent churning over priorities and targets were having more of an effect on those around him than he’d thought. No one had wanted to mention it to him for hurting his feelings or making the work he was doing more difficult. Their reactions said it all. They all understood the financial vulnerability but felt that in these days of heightened accountability for heads, there was an element of insecurity anyway.

David decided to go.


Further reading

  • This series of articles on the NAHT website give some insights into the alternative career options available to heads.
School Leadership Today