Losing the best job in the world

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best job in the worldHeadteachers’ leader John Dunford asks why, with a looming shortage of heads, the Government pursues policies that mean school leaders are losing their jobs in record numbers.

Being a head is the best job in the world, but…” was how Jacques Szemalikowski, head of Hampstead School, started his question to the secretary of state at the 2009 annual conference of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL).

In his speech to the conference, Ed Balls had responded to my request that, with so many initiatives hitting schools, he should tell school leaders what his top two priorities are. “Raising standards and closing the achievement gap between rich and poor,” was his unequivocal answer.

His speech was well received by the 600 leaders attending the conference, who made clear that they shared his priorities and approved of the moral purpose behind them. However, the questions after the speech left the secretary of state in no doubt that, while we share his central mission, we are deeply concerned at the way in which the Government is carrying out its policies.

Fresh in the minds of those at the conference were the ASCL figures of the number of school leaders who have lost their jobs in the last year – 150, according to data provided by the ASCL field force, five times as many as four years ago.

Half of the job losses had resulted from schools becoming academies or from the National Challenge, in which secondary schools with fewer than 30 per cent of 16-year-olds attaining five A*–C GCSE passes were threatened with closure unless they reached that benchmark by 2011.

This fivefold increase does not result from school governors having a collective Damascus moment and suddenly deciding to get tough with their headteachers. The increase has happened because of top-down pressure on local authorities and governing bodies to ensure that schools meet this arbitrary benchmark, whatever the academic ability of their intake.

In National Challenge schools the head and senior staff have been placed under immense pressure by the local authority acting on instructions from National Strategies personnel, who in turn are under pressure from DCSF officials charged by ministers with reducing to zero by 2011 the number of schools with fewer than 30 per cent A*–Cs. So we have the classic top-down situation, with school leaders and teachers at the bottom of a very big pile.

The 30 per cent target was frst announced by the Prime Minister in his Greenwich lecture on 31 October 2007. As we saw with many policies in the Tony Blair era, the education department tends to move quickly when the Prime Minister has spoken.

None of this is necessary. First, there are much better ways of identifying success than the raw results at GCSE or an arbitrary benchmark such as 30 per cent.
Second, it is now well established that school-to-school support is what best helps low-performing schools to raise achievement. London Challenge showed the way, with heads of successful schools advising the ‘keys to success schools’ that were identified as needing to raise attainment most.

Likewise, the National Leaders of Education (NLE) scheme, in which the school of each NLE head is designated a National Support School, recognises that it is not only the head who does this support work. The capacity of the whole leadership team, and the experience of the governing body too, can be used to help other schools.

Finding the right kind of support for a school in difficulty is a more successful strategy than sacking the head and hoping that a better one can be found.


As well as the National Challenge, the formation of academies has led to heads losing their jobs. The academies programme started with schools that were in major difficulty and some very entrepreneurial sponsors were told that, as part of the £2million deal, they would be able to appoint their own head. In some of these schools there was no permanent head and candidates were identified through the normal recruitment process.

But the thrust of the academy programme has changed. As the pool of famous-name sponsors dried up, the Government turned to organisations such as the United Learning Trust and Oasis, as well as universities and colleges, for most of the newer academies. Edutrust, for example, is sponsoring nine academies in September 2009, with more planned for 2010. Since February 2009 it has been under the leadership of Sir Bruce Liddington, the former schools commissioner at the DCSF – a new role that was created for him in 2006 to promote the academy brand.

TUPE – the Act of Parliament that is supposed to guarantee job rights of workers when organisations are taken over by new owners – applies to headteachers as much as to other staff, but too many sponsors are finding ways of getting rid of the head so that they can appoint their own leader, even in situations where the school is on a rising trend of achievement.

Other incumbent heads have been appointed to the academy when their school has been reorganised, but then lose their job when, through lack of proper support or a too-hasty start, the academy starts to go wrong.

It is telling that every academy is established with a ‘reorganisation fund’, the express purpose of which is to pay for the replacement of staff whose services are not required or whose faces don’t ft.

As the number of academies increases towards the Government’s target of 400, this situation is likely to continue, even though local authorities are now more closely involved in the formation of academies as part of the Building Schools for the Future programme. With the credit crunch inevitably having an impact on the long-term viability of the Building Schools for the Future programme, there may be a move towards academies on the cheap. Reorganisations that are carried out without proper resourcing always create problems for the staff and the school leadership and, in these circumstances, heads will need to ensure that sufficient support is available for them to be able to meet the school’s targets. It will be the heads, and not the sponsors, who will get the blame when improvement is not at the required level.

New powers

The main problems with school leaders’ job vulnerability, however, lie with the new powers given to local authorities during the last two years, including statutory powers to deal with schools that they determine to be ‘causing concern’. Likewise, the National Challenge and ‘coasting’ schools’ strategies depend on local authorities to carry them out. Both of these are aimed exclusively at secondary schools.

There are two problems with this. The first is that, while local authority staff tend to have expertise in the leadership of primary schools, there are too many local authorities which have very few senior staff – and, in some cases, nobody – with experience of leading secondary schools. For these local authorities, piling responsibilities on to them to improve secondary schools, as the Government has done recently, is akin to building the school improvement house on sand. Decisions about the effectiveness of secondary schools are often not sufficiently founded in reality.

The second problem is of even greater concern. Local authorities are under the cosh. The ‘Baby P’ case in Haringey and the public sacking of its director of children’s services by the secretary of state raised the stakes for local authority performance, not only in child safeguarding but in all aspects of their work. This has placed local authorities in a position where they feel that they need to demonstrate their effectiveness to the Government.

Too often they find that the easiest way to do this is to sack a few heads. “Look,” they say to the National Strategies or other central government agent monitoring their work, “we are taking frm action to improve our schools. Three heads have been removed from their posts in the last year.” And the visitors tick the box and go away.

But not for long. The extent to which local authorities are monitored makes school inspection look positively light touch. One local authority kept a record for a year of all the monitoring and supervisory visits from external agencies and the score was well over 200.

In this climate of top-down pressure, it is easy to see why heads, as leaders of the front-line institutions that are seen to be at the bottom of the ‘delivery chain’ (a horrible expression much used in Whitehall) are at risk.

What is frustrating is that we know the answer to turning around an unsuccessful school – and it only rarely involves sacking the head. The methodology of school-to-school support that I mentioned above is now well known by both central and local government. The school improvement partner identifies problems at an early stage and discusses with the head the support required in order to improve the situation. The local authority then commissions this support from a successful school with the capacity to help. All recent experience shows that this works – and works well.

The effect of the football manager approach to headteachers is that many potentially good leaders are saying “Not for me” and remaining in their deputy head or other leadership posts.

This represents the biggest threat to the “succession planning” strategy of the National College for School Leadership. Not only are heads now more vulnerable, but as the responsibilities and accountabilities increase year by year, the performance data on which they are judged covers an increasingly wide area.

More responsibilities

The secretary of state may have defined his top priorities as just two, but the wider children’s agenda has produced a long list of extra responsibilities.

As well as the curriculum reforms facing secondary schools at all key stages and the implementation of the diplomas, which would themselves be sufficient for a reform programme lasting several years, there are numerous new statutory duties and initiatives arising out of the Education Act 2008, including duties to promote well-being and community cohesion, with yet more to come from the clauses of the huge Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill 2009.

Then there is the green paper on the future of schools in the 21st century, online reporting in all secondary schools from 2010, new rules on SENCOs and arrangements for looked-after children, a new Ofsted inspection framework to prepare for, a new-style self-evaluation form (SEF), personal tutors to be introduced, and much more. There is now the Common Assessment Framework (CAF) form to be completed when external support is required for a child and new children’s trusts in which schools will have to participate and to which they will have to report, spawning yet more bureaucracy. This hugely increased range of responsibilities hardly sounds like a strategy to attract lots of people to apply for headships.

Increasing accountability is never far behind increasing responsibilities and, although accountability is currently focused tightly on examination results and Ofsted inspections, the proposed new school report card will grade schools on a wider range of performance indicators, refecting the responsibilities described above.

There is much to play for here if the report card is to lead to a more intelligent approach to accountability. Intelligent accountability requires a more intelligent approach to dealing with headteachers. This must happen if headship is to remain the best job in the world.

Dr John Dunford is general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders.

Taken from School Leadership Today (formerly Managing Schools Today).

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