Can you be a headteacher without ever being a teacher?

Francis Gilbert's picture
I appeared on Radio 5 Live yesterday talking about this issue because Julie White-Zamler is about to qualify as a headteacher but has no classroom experience. She told BBC Radio 5 live: "It's not correct to say a non-teacher can't learn."

I argued that the best headteachers were also experienced teachers who understood, from first-hand experience, what goes on in the classroom. The presenter put White-Zamler on the spot and asked her what she would do if a pupil told her to "eff off"; White-Zamler talked about disciplining the child in an appropriate fashion. She clearly knows what she's talking about because she's done a NPQH, a National Professional Qualification for Headship. But is this enough? In my experience, the younger headteachers in the profession, who've often been fast-tracked to headship, tend to be quite bureaucratic and obsessed with "making their mark" -- instituting loads of changes -- but not really concentrating on the nitty-gritty of helping teachers get better at their job. I am not sure that a headteacher with very little experience of teaching is taken that seriously by the teachers in their schools.

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Sarah Dobbs's picture
Thu, 21/04/2011 - 11:01

Is this not symptomatic of so much that is wrong with education right now? A huge academy up the road from us (but in a different local authority) identifies on its sign outside not their "headteacher" but thier "chief executive."

Now, I see no reason why a "chief executive" should need teaching experience....

Matthew McGee's picture
Thu, 21/04/2011 - 15:12

And why do the headteachers at all these academies seem to be called 'Principal'? Yet another Americanism that I can't stand.

Francis Gilbert's picture
Thu, 21/04/2011 - 15:46

I think there is a new breed of headteacher emerging who sees the job as "project managing", it's all about raising funds from various sources, buying equipment, putting up new buildings etc, rather than paying attention to the pupils and teachers.

Rosemary Mann's picture
Thu, 21/04/2011 - 20:12

Personally as a parent I find this trend hard to believe. I personally know some deputy headteachers who aren't teachers and who tend to focus on 'business' support. They still seem to call themselves deputy headteachers though! I think its good to have a mix of people in the profession but personally I'd run a mile from any school that had a CEO instead of headteacher! I want someone who is a committed educationalist in charge of my childrens school. The art and practice of teaching does these days seem to be getting a hard time with some quarters believing that it can't be that hard and effectively devaluing the profession. Little do they know.

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 22/04/2011 - 14:21

Evidence to the Select Committee on school discipline highlighted the importance of senior teacher support in maintaining discipline in schools. Unfortunately, the trend towards senior teacher becoming senior management moves the emphasis away from education towards business. If heads (aka Principals, Chief Executive Officers and so on) are spending their time studying balance sheets, marketing strategies and the minutae of the cleaning contract, how can they do the most important job of all - supporting teachers at the chalkface?

W Smith's picture
Sat, 23/04/2011 - 10:48

I am amazed, I really didn't know that you could become a head teacher without serving your apprenticeship in the classroom first. When did that happen, can anybody just rock up and do an NPQH ??? Do you need to know anything about child development, teaching and learning? Or is it now just a business role, balancing the books and analysing reams of data.

Why would you want to be? Surely being a head is about taking all of your experience and passion gained over a good few years into leading a school forward. I would need a lot of convincing if I was working for a head who had not served their time at the chalkface.

Laura McInerney's picture
Sat, 23/04/2011 - 20:14

I actually quite like this idea. One of the problems we have is that people who are good at teaching aren't always the ones who are good at being headteachers. So if you don't allow non-teaching heads you end up in the rather odd situation with people who *could* be good at being headteachers not being able to do it, because they weren't good at something not relevant to being a 'chief exec', and those who are excellent teachers often being forced out of it into senior management because they are seen as being the ones who should be promoted (even when their strengths won't be best utilised as a Head).

Being a Head largely *is* project management and one person can't be expected to be good at everything - surely you would just make sure that your SLT cover all the other strengths? While I appreciate it is great to find passionate Heads with the sort of organisational skills that make the Roman Army weep whilst also having emotional intelligence, knowledge of child development, empathy, creativity, financial astuteness and more charisma than Bll Clinton - frankly, if we wish to staff *all* of our schools I'm afraid we may have to accept that one person rarely fills all roles but that some people outside of education can fit most of them.

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 24/04/2011 - 08:24

A head teacher is first and foremost a teacher leading other teachers. Education should be the first priority. The admin side should be the responsibility of a chief administrator who should be part of the senior team but not leading it. Heads should be qualified teachers. A chief administrator should have professional management qualifications.

However, the above only works in a large school. It's not feasible in a small primary where the head may have a full teaching load. Here a competent school secretary can shoulder the administrative burden.

Tokyo Nambu's picture
Tue, 26/04/2011 - 15:16

"I argued that the best headteachers were also experienced teachers who understood, from first-hand experience, what goes on in the classroom."

"I am amazed, I really didn’t know that you could become a head teacher without serving your apprenticeship in the classroom first. "

That explains why the Army, the Navy and the Airforce are such disasters, you see, and why they need to learn from the police force, which is much better run. The armed forces make the fatal mistake of appointing commissioned officers direct from OTC or its equivalent, without them having served their time as privates. The army even have an organisation built up around this, with non-commissioned officers who act as a link, and they believe that some of the skills required for senior officers in the Army aren't learnt as privates.

No, the Army --- and, let's face it, the British Army is a national disgrace, as compared to the universal high regard that the police, and especially chief constables, are held in --- would do far better if it insisted that all officers entered as privates, as the police do.

Sarcasm aside, the skills of a classroom teacher are different to those of a headteacher when it comes to finance, governance and so on, and very similar when it comes to acting as a senior teacher, mentoring staff. The Army solve this by having field officers, staff officers, NCOs and a variety of senior NCOs such as RSMs who provide a lot of the running of a regiment. Industry solves this by having for example "chief engineer" and "CTO" type roles which act as the technical lead, while CEO and COO types handle the money. Given the shortage of qualified people both willing and able to become head teachers, it seems harsh to expect them to both be uber-teachers and also be excellent managing directors. This is the same myth that leads to the idea that NHS hospitals are best run by consultants, whose twenty years of medical training has obviously given them the negotiating and procurement skills to run the financial aspects, and whose twenty years of medical training won't in any way be wasted by having them do admin, badly.

W Smith's picture
Tue, 26/04/2011 - 20:00

Tokyo - It is harsh to expect them to be both - so what is the solution?
When did headship become project management and budget control in stead of what the title on the box says "Head teacher?"
At present it is an impossible job dealing with for example building contracts, audits, misbehaving children and emotional parents sometimes in the space of an hour.
You are right, in the Army etc there is more delegation - but is it right to compare those different services just because they all come under the umbrella of being a public service?
They are all unique in what they are providing.
If a head teacher is going to be the paperwork chief, then teaching and learning, parents and children should be the responsibility of another member of the team, but they tend to be very busy teaching 30 children at a time,especially in primary schools. May be in the wonderful world of 21st century education progress means we need 2 heads per school!!

Tokyo Nambu's picture
Tue, 26/04/2011 - 22:36

"When did headship become project management and budget control in stead of what the title on the box says “Head teacher?”"

Well, when I accused schools of being run from Whitehall or Town Hall, Fiona correctly pointed out that local management means that things that used to be done centrally are now done locally. Which means that someone needs to to that local management.

But schools are probably one of the few non-military organisations whose management structure has remained unchanged for more than a century.

The military have an excuse: they need a chain of command which says when to shoot, and where, and that chain of command needs to survive being shot at. So platoon/company/regiment (with a hint of "fire team" if you're being modern) is, literally, battle tested. But almost everywhere else, organisations have changed to accommodate things like telephones and computers. If you walk into a small bank branch, there isn't a manager in the old sense of the word, and the same applies in a small clinic, a small branch of a firm of solicitors. There might be an "office manager" or a "supervisor" but their role is administrative; the old idea of "the man [and I use the word advisedly] in charge" has gone. And that "office manager" or "supervisor" may not be a banker/doctor/solicitor at all, or at least may have been many years ago and not practiced in some years. The leadership and goal setting and value decisions come from the centre, not from the office manager.

But in schools, the headteacher used to be the captain of a ship at sea in international waters, empowered to conduct weddings and funerals. Once the pupils and teachers were in the building and the gates were closed, they had substantial power. Now that power is diluted by (hopefully) more active governors, employment law, national standards, etc, etc. But although the local bank manager and the local solicitor and even, to an extent, the local GP no longer have the autonomy they once did, headteachers' roles are still seen in much the same light they were in South Riding.

So one might ask several questions. Firstly, do small schools actually need a head? Why not just operate as outposts of a larger school? After all, even fifty years ago, banks had sub-branches. Well, that loses leadership and so on, and heads are seen as important to schools, but if the head is teaching full-time, just how much leading and so on are they actually doing? Would a visiting half-time head be better than a local head who teaches full-time? Secondly, in larger schools, which have a panoply of deputy and assistant heads, there is usually a bursar (which there wasn't a generation ago): it's axiomatic that they work for the head, but there's no reason that the head and the bursar shouldn't report to the governors independently, although that would need a something akin to an executive governor.

Whatever, school management structures, and the role of the head, haven't been looked at in a century or more. They're sort of grown, and accreted, and generally evolved, but the basic idea as the head as master of all they survey hasn't been changed. Schools can succeed with great heads, but fail with bad ones (my alma mater was placed in special measures with the head escorted off the premises never to return --- "Leadership and management are poor and the leadership of the headteacher is poor. The vision for the school is not being achieved. Monitoring, evaluation and support for improving behaviour, achievement, assessment and care are ineffective. "). But leading a workforce of 150+ with 1500+ students is a major, major, task, and just because you've been a good classroom teacher is not of itself a qualification. And just because you've been a bad classroom teacher isn't necessarily a disqualification --- there's a theory that great footballers make dreadful coaches because they simply don't understand the problems that journeyman players have in making like Johan Cruyff, and indeed that people to whom subject X comes naturally are bad at teaching subject X, because they can't understand why other people don't find it easy as well. And even if being a good teacher _is_ a qualification for being a headteacher, wouldn't it be better to keep such people in the classroom, or passing their skills on to other teachers rather than doing budgeting, badly?

(And, of course, in industry a regular complaint is the MD who used to do function X, who hasn't stayed current but believes they could still do it better than their staff had but they the time: such MDs are universally hated, and a read of oldandrew's blog will show endless complaints about SMT who have a rose-tinted view of the classroom).

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 27/04/2011 - 07:28

Head teachers are responsible for the education of the pupils. This is their main priority not balancing the books. Management should be delegated to bursars, chief adminstrators and so on whose role is to support head teachers not overule them. Years ago much of this admin was done by the local authority allowing schools to concentrate on their prime goal: education.

Tokyo: you say that "The leadership and goal setting and value decisions come from the centre, not from the office manager." Substitute the word "head teacher" for "centre" and you're spot on, and that's why the head teacher needs to be a teacher.

May Day's picture
Sun, 01/05/2011 - 08:25

Surprising to hear Julie White-Zamler on the radio. But I believe that, though she has no teaching qualifications, she has a degree in marketing and may be likely to be comfortable with the media.

It may also be useful to know the opinions of Julie White-Zamler's former colleagues in her former school, which she joined to take charge of the marketing. She later became an assistant head, before, after making many changes, being made redundant.

I would wager that those former colleagues would agree whole-heartedly with Francis Gilbert in saying: "In my experience, the younger headteachers in the profession, who’ve often been fast-tracked to headship, tend to be quite bureaucratic and obsessed with “making their mark” — instituting loads of changes — but not really concentrating on the nitty-gritty of helping teachers get better at their job."

Those former colleagues are, no doubt, following Julie White-Zamler's career with interest.

My understanding is that, in order to become a teacher in the UK in the State system, a university graduate has to undertake a Postgraduate Certificate of Education. This is viewed as an intensive course both in the practical teaching placements and in the study of child education and development. After this one-year postgraduate course, those successful are only then eligible to begin their careers as newly-qualified teachers. The traditional route to headship follows after many years of teaching experience.

Can a non-teacher with experience as a manager in a small private independent school (Julie White-Zamler) offer the same degree of understanding of the teaching and learning environment as an experienced, qualified teacher? The answer is clearly, no. But is this important when being asked to lead a school of teachers?

It would be useful to know if those supporting a non-teaching head have any experience of teaching within a school. I suspect that the majority of those advocating non-teaching headships do not.

But surely there must be some merit in appointing a senior manager to run the administration of a large organisation? The leader of a large NHS Trust is seldom a doctor or consultant. But such leaders do not become involved in how surgeons carry out the operations. Would a non-teaching head of a school be able to resist the temptation to become involved in educational matters? Indeed, is there a requirement for a head of a school to become so involved? In relation to Julie White-Zamler, she did become so involved.

Ultimately, in the private sector, fee-paying parents will make this decision. In the State sector, one suspects that the teaching profession, and it is a 'profession' and should protect that status, will have a lot to say.

Cranford House's picture
Fri, 08/07/2011 - 21:12

Why does Julie White-Zamler not seek a headship in the private sector? Her limited experience of schools has been in the private sector, in the small independent school called Cranford House where her former colleagues and the governors have, no doubt, very fond memories of her. Her two children are still at the school. (Was this part of her redundancy package?) The fees for her course at the esteemed and clearly hard-to-get-onto NPQH course was paid by her former school. (Was this part of her redundancy package?) JWZ is clearly not against the private sector on grounds of principle. So why is she not trying for a headship in the independent, private sector? Surely her reputation in the independent sector will go before her? And, in order to be a teacher in the private sector, one does not need to be a qualified teacher. So, again, why is she targeting the State sector? Any reference from Cranford House will, no doubt, be carefully drafted to say what a wonderful asset she was at the school.

Match1985's picture
Sun, 24/06/2012 - 15:47

Ok would someone with 5-6 experience as a teaching assistant, who has has completed a pgce and is qualified to teach but carried on doing a masters whilst still working as a TA. Could thy become a headteacher? It's a route I'm thinking about.

Tangerine Dream's picture
Wed, 18/12/2013 - 00:12

You now do not need any qualifications whatsoever to become a head teacher of a school since 2012, when the law was changed. No need for a degree or PGCE or NPHQ - they are all now not needed. No need to have ever taught a lesson either!

Tangerine Dream's picture
Tue, 17/12/2013 - 23:52

There is a Head teacher in a school in the North west of England who has never been to University nor ever taught a lesson. This particular person calls herself a Headteacher, but does not have a degree or any teaching qualification at all. This person has a finance 6 week qualification and that's it. Staff are leaving this school in droves. She was also on the interview panel (3 times) for the Head of the school for which she now holds the job!

SJ76's picture
Tue, 23/12/2014 - 21:08

I am a school business manager and returned to this, a new role for me, following a career break to raise a family. My background is HR, Resourcing and Training within Financial Services, Retail and Higher Education and I also had a short stint as a secondary school teacher in my early working life. Teaching wasn't for me and I was lured by the need to earn an income that I felt couldn't be achieved within teaching. I was right and it was the right thing to do. Teaching as a career is still a 'calling', in my view. I was a Specialist Support Assistant most recently, whilst my child was very young so feel I saw the changes and what's going on 'now' - some 17 years later. I now work with a very young, dynamic head who has climbed up the ranks very quickly. She's impressive but I'm not sure she has the full support of her TA community and Admin support team, which is a real shame, but not a hindrance. I'm not sure having direct exposure to teaching delivery makes a head a better head but it can make them more aware of the challenges faced by classroom teachers (although this can be learnt and observed in other ways other than through personal delivery - in my view). I'd like to think there is the right school out there, for me, where I could progress to a Headship in the future. There are two reasons for this [possibly unrealistic] personal goal. Firstly, I think parents who feel an 'educationalist' is better suited to being a Head is naive. What do they really think a head does all day?! A headship is about leading, managing and developing a school community - schools are enterprises and developing curriculum and leading on the development of teaching skills is just a part of a much wider role. Secondly, a headship pays better. The role of the SBM is significantly undervalued. Some school communities need Heads with an active teaching role (it varies from school to school) and some just don't operate that way. If the Head is in the classroom purely to keep their' skills up to date and win favor with faculty, that's not necessarily the most resource effective route. Schools are changing and the role of the Head and SBM, in my view, needs to become more equitable in terms of salary and professional status. Schools are continuing to struggle to recruit good Heads. This is a fact. Their workloads are unmanageable and the administrative operations are archaic. Far from 21st century. Without the huge amount of business support of an SBM, and with the continued lack of professional status and low salaries offered to an SBM, this resourcing dilemma will continue and our Heads will continue to struggle.

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