Headteachers’ role as the ‘key educator and leader of learning’ is seen as important but is ‘no longer the predominant activity,’ says a report into the problems facing headteacher recruitment in Scotland.
The report’s findings also apply to England. In recent years heads have morphed into ‘principals’ and ‘executive principals’ (those beings which the late Ted Wragg joked you wouldn’t recognise because they were never in schools). Education, although perceived as important, is sidelined by administrative, legal and financial duties especially when schools become academies.
But education is the most important activity in schools: heads should focus on that. The Scottish report found potential heads were deterred from applying for headship because the job had become too wide and onerous. Legal changes; curriculum changes and increased societal demands about what schools should do have increased headteachers’ responsibilities and workloads.
In England, this is worsened by the spectre of being judged solely on results. But, as Dr Mary Beard told the Education Select Committee’s Conference on the Aims and Quality of Education last week, rising exam results are not necessarily a sign of educational quality. Data can be a very unreliable means of judging schools. Yet it is the one that predominates in England. Regional School Commissioners, for example, send threatening letters to academies with low results even when Ofsted has judged the academy to be Good*.
It is a 21st century disease, Dr Beard said, to throw some legislation at any perceived problem. She cited Prevent which had caused some pre-school provision to develop policies which detail how they will deter the radicalisation of babies and toddlers. It’s ‘barking mad’, she said. But it’s the law, and schools must follow it.
This extra legislation, together with politicisation of education, constant changes in curriculum, exams and tests, an increasing emphasis on raw results and expecting schools to solve more and more of society’s problems create a perfect storm. Teaching becomes a far less attractive profession (especially when some politicians don’t regard it as a profession but a ‘craft’ best learned on-the-job).
When education takes a back seat to financial management, administration, data collection, marketing, and, in the case of academies, complying with Company and Charity law, then education suffers. The primary focus of schools is to provide good quality education – teachers and heads know this. But when the requirements of the job actually prevent teachers doing what they went into teaching for, then it’s hardly surprising when the number wishing to become teachers, never mind the number wishing to become heads, drops.
Teaching can be the best job in the world. I know – I was one. But it can also be one that crushes and burns teachers out. And when education is no longer the ‘predominant activity’ for school leaders, then education is stuffed.
*Examples include Unity City Academy and Skegness Academy. The latter is a non-selective school in Lincolnshire, a selective county. In 2015, the GCSE cohort had just 12 previously-high attaining pupils out of 179: 105 were previously middle attainers and 55 were previously low attainers. The selective system creates schools like this where the intake is skewed. It doesn’t matter if inspectors judge such low-performing schools to be Good or better – they will be judged on their results. This is likely to deter applications for headships in such schools – it could be career suicide. A consequence of the Government’s proposals to extend selection will be to create more such ‘low-performing’ schools.