The latest DfE consideration of a fast track to headship for those identified as ‘bright’ candidates could mean headteachers as young as 26 being responsible for schools. This is the latest ‘madcap’ idea of Toby Young, he of the ‘free school’ development. I look back at my first year of headship aged 38, following experience in seven schools, with some embarrassment. I was saved by a fabulous senior team, David a deputy headteacher of twelve years’ experience and Saira an assistant headteacher, both of whom mollified some of my more ridiculous, naïve announcements and kept me consistent. Only now, aged 50, do I feel I have a steadfast vision and crucially, the lifetime experience to manage a diverse, complex staff who are under extreme external pressure. This is not a job for the inexperienced young, no matter how bright they are.
Headship is always complex. At times it is unrelenting and is not currently a sought after employment. This is the problem. We have excellent senior leaders but not the candidates who want to pursue headship. I believe the reasons for this are that headship has become pigeon-holed in short term stereotypes and glib performance indicators. You are judged either as a success or a failure, Ofsted rated good or inadequate, a league table success or not and on meeting or missing your challenging, unrealistic performance targets. A scattergun attack of high pressure and external judgement! This annual angst means headteachers are very much like football managers who are judged annually, judged at times unfairly and in some cases judged to be expendable. The reason I took my job was that I projected at interview a hopeful long-term vision, which I and the staff would implement if felt to be correct for our school, our community and our students. Key aspects of my interview were vertical tutoring, sixth form and student voice which are now an integral part of the school. Other aspects were later opening times and enrichment vocational Wednesday afternoons, which are as yet still on the optional pile being pondered on. This has not been a ‘quick-fix’ but twelve years of momentum and built on a platform of hard work and trust.
The skill I feel the governors and senior staff have had in our school is in keeping the faith. Three years of poor English results, a combination of the marking fiasco of 2014, searching too desperately for a course that suited our students and some teacher complacency were stressful and needed a supportive action plan not a clear out, knee jerk sacking or a ‘scapegoat’ redundancy of anyone at any level. Would I at 26 have had the ability to lead a key struggling department or would I have made a disastrous hot-headed decision? Experience is invaluable. Leading a school or a department cannot be fast tracked by two years of teaching or a course at university, no matter how personable, bright or articulate you are. Continuing to be a head who teaches gives you kudos and keeps you grounded. There is nothing more humiliating than being reminded ‘your reports are due in’ or you ‘did not take your register’. I like teaching and young people quickly point out your failings even if sometimes colleagues are deferential.
My advice to the government would be to identify headteachers who are working in senior teams identified as innovative, collaborative and good. Try to then match them up with similar schools. It has always seemed ridiculous to me that for such a key position no interviewing Governor has ever visited my school to assess the credibility and qualities of the deputy aspiring to headship. Proudly, four of my team have gone onto headship but at times they struggled because their qualities were not right for the type of school they became headteacher of. David and Saira never went onto headship; both should have and would have been wonderful heads. David froze at interview and rightly would not compromise his principles. This one quality would have got him a job if I had been on the panel! Saira thought the pay was minimal for the hassle, accountability and pressure on your family. Both were right! Both should have been identified and used in leading the right school because when it comes together and you can shut the door on the outside it is a fabulously, privileged job – better at 50 than at 38!