Dr Mary Bousted, General Secretary, ATL (originally published in Outlook edition 64, summer 2016)

The hunt for head teachers is on! Schools, desperate for candidates to take on the top job, are resorting to hiring recruitment agencies (with fees of up to 20 thousand pounds) to help with advertising, shortlisting, background checks, selection on the day and pay negotiation.  And yet, last year, one in four primary headships remained unfilled 60 days after advertising.

One major barrier to head teacher recruitment is the number of deputy heads who find, when it comes to it, that they do not want to step up to the headship plate. They see at close hand the stress and exhaustion that comes with headship – the 60 hour working weeks (a figure which is averaged out over the school holidays). And then there is the chronic job insecurity.  Being a head teacher is increasingly likened to football management – one bad season, (which for head teachers means one bad Ofsted grade) and you’re out – your career ending in ignominy.

The demands made of head teachers are large, and constantly growing.  Faced with constant education revolution in the guise of endless changes to the curriculum, assessment, qualifications, education legislation and so much more, is it any wonder that school governors are finding it more and more difficult to appoint someone to lead their schools?

And yet, there is no more important job in society than being a head teacher.  The best school leaders create, in their schools, a small microcosm of the ‘good society’.  It is as pupils in primary, and students in secondary schools, that children and young people learn their rights and their responsibilities as members of a social group which goes beyond their families and friends.  Schools are, above all, social institutions, dedicated to learning, in which children learn far more than literacy and numeracy.

School is the place where children and young people learn to be good citizens. The majority very quickly realise that there are rules, made for the good of all, which must be obeyed – and if they are not, there are consequences.  School is the place where children and young people learn that it is better to get along with other people who they may, or may not, like.  Tolerance, empathy, understanding, resilience, the importance of questioning, are attributes which are nurtured and developed in schools.  And it is in schools that children and young people learn to work with, and become friends with, others who are not like them – who speak another language at home, perhaps, or who have special learning needs. These are all essential lessons for life.  If we did not already have schools, we would have to invent them.

A school’s ethos is shaped by the head teacher and is apparent as soon as you walk through the door.  Schools with a strong ethos are incredibly positive, purposeful places where children and young people are valued and nurtured.  The most effective school leaders do something more, however; they demonstrate, on a daily basis, that they rely upon and value the teachers they work with.  As a leader myself, I knew one thing above all others – that if I supported and developed my teaching staff, they in turn would support and develop their students.

Yet I have known school leaders who have said to me that they are interested only in the welfare and progress of their pupils, and not of their staff.  This is an enormous mistake– because effective schools are built upon the joint efforts of school leaders working with teachers and support staff.  When your working life is so pressured, it makes good sense, and brings enormous rewards, not to be a hero head – the lone leader driving forward and bringing others in your wake – but to work collaboratively, building teams and embedding devolved leadership throughout the school – so that everyone feels that they have something to contribute towards its success.

But when the going gets tough – when the pressure to improve results becomes immense – then the danger for too many school leaders is to take short cuts.  Discussion and dialogue, consultation and compromise, go out of the window. The pace of educational change can lead to frenetic activity which makes more and more demands on already overworked colleagues.

The ability to prioritise, to decide what is important and what is not, what has to be done now and what can wait until later, or not be done at all, is an essential facet of effective school leadership.  Without this prioritisation the danger is that schools turn from collaborative, professionally led institutions into rigid, hierarchical structures which demand compliance from teachers, driven by an unquestioning adherence to whatever is the latest education fad demanded by Ofsted.

And there can be no doubt that it is the school inspection agency, Ofsted, which places the greatest and most onerous demands on school leaders, whose jobs are only as secure as their last inspection grade. Rigorous accountability is an absolute requisite of any service which is publicly funded, but when the accountability system is ineffective, then the consequences can be dire.  But Ofsted does not operate an effective accountability system for schools.  John Cridland, the Director General of the CBI, commented recently that …’In weaker schools, fear of Ofsted drives behaviours which lead to perverse outcomes, instead of better ones.  All too often, it’s only the data that matters. And in stronger schools, rebel head teachers succeed in spite of the system, not because of it.  All too often, innovation still means rebellion – and it shouldn’t!’

Fear of Ofsted leads to an inappropriately narrow curriculum in which too much learning time is taken up with test preparation.  This is harmful to children’s learning and to young people’s ability to develop, in school, the skills and abilities that they will need to succeed in the world of work.  Employers want young people who can speak well, who can work in teams, who are resilient, creative and inventive.  Effective school leaders recognise that only a broad and balanced curriculum will develop these skills, along with the excellent literacy and numeracy which employers want as well.

As a society we need to treat school leaders much better if we are to create a climate where teachers are willing to stick their heads above the parapet and take on the responsibility for leading the complex organisations which are schools.  People with excellent personal skills, with a strong vision for education and excellent professional knowledge, and with high ambitions for all the children and young people in their care, are highly attractive to any number of other professions. We will not turn around the head teacher recruitment crisis unless we make the job more satisfying, more creative and more rewarding.  Along with the teacher recruitment crisis, the dearth of likely head teacher candidates is the biggest challenge facing our education system.