Due respect – Why the Gov and Gove should show heads and teachers greater respect

With more than half of headteachers considering leaving the profession citing government policy and unfounded criticism, one former head urges those who remain to stand up for the respect they deserve.

I gave up my second headship after 11 years in the big chair, in 2007, aged 49.  The school was in good shape and, indeed, we achieved extremely good results that summer.  I enjoyed excellent relationships with a long-standing and committed governing body, with my wonderful leadership team and lovely staff.  I gave up because I could afford to and had always said I was off as soon as it was financially viable.  But I can’t pretend that I wasn’t relieved beyond belief at being out of a job so stressful, thankless and accountable for increasingly ludicrous outcomes.  And those were the good old days, before Michael ‘a day without making the headlines is a day without self-promotion’ Gove.

I was interested, therefore, to read that a survey commissioned on behalf of secondary heads’ union ASCL and the TES threw up the shocking statistic that more than half of those asked – and it was 1800 heads – were considering leaving the profession.

Now, let’s just unpack that statistic alone for a second.  According to data collected from the school census, that means that more than half the total number of existing secondary school heads were asked, meaning that we can infer definitely that at least a quarter of secondary heads in England feel so demoralised and dispirited they have considered resignation.  The reasons given?  The “government’s education policies and the barrage of unfounded criticism about standards.”

In fact, the statistics are even worse than I’ve suggested (and before anyone suspects I’m a raving Trotskyite of the kind Gove warned you about, I checked with the Daily Telegraph’s version of the report).  So, according to the voice of Tunbridge Wells itself, more than two thirds, or 67.9 per cent, of the heads surveyed agreed that the Government’s attitude to teachers had made them more likely to resign in the next five years.  The really worrying statistic, to my mind, was that more than a third of these heads were ‘actively planning’ to leave teaching altogether.

Of course, comments under the Telegraph article included a number of the ‘teachers are always moaning and threatening to resign’ variety and to some extent, they’re right.  But I did it; and things have got much, much worse in the five years since I skipped off into the sunshine and are set to continue making the role of headteacher increasingly untenable.  I have friends who are still in headship and I ache with sympathy for them at each subsequent turn of the criticism screw.

It was, therefore, with hollow laughter that heads must have reacted to the DfE’s response to the OECD survey: “…we are making their lives easier – by giving them more day-to-day freedom, slashing bureaucratic paperwork and by giving them more control over discipline.”  I must call a few friends and ask what they’re doing with all that free time, now that all the ‘bureaucratic paperwork’ has been ‘slashed’ and they have ‘more day-to-day freedom’.  And as for the greater control over discipline, I’m absolutely agog to discover what super-powers headteachers have magically gained.

The truth is that it’s all smoke and mirrors – whenever the government of the day claims to have reduced paperwork, you can guarantee that all they mean is you can fill out their forms on your computer now.  The single best bit of paperwork ‘slashing’ by this government was the removal of the compulsory SEF for Ofsted and they’re quite proud of this; heads know, of course, that if you don’t actually do the SEF or something very like it, you’re Ofsted toast.

One primary head I know  reports that she’s spending more than 50% of her time these days on safeguarding issues and parent-caused problems  – that’s time she can’t spend doing what she wants to do, which is working with staff and children to raise achievement.

The education secretary, however, would tell my friend that what she’s doing is not good enough and the PISA rankings tell him so.  Of course, Mr Gove likes to dip his finger into the PISA pie and pull out those plums that suit him. UK pupils were at the OECD average in reading and not statistically different to, for example, Estonia and Poland. The secretary of state frequently describes these two countries as ‘beating’ the UK. Similarly, UK pupils were at the OECD average for Maths and not significantly different to, among others,Poland and the USA. In Science, UK pupils scored above the OECD average along with, among others, Chinese Taipei, Macao-China and Germany, all of which are countries which Mr Gove says are ‘better’ than the UK.

According to a recent report by the OECD, we have the best leaders in the world in our schools.  Our heads spend much more of their time on leading and developing pedagogy and learning than those in any other developed country, including those much beloved of our education secretary, like Finland.  Of course, the OECD report bothered to back its report with evidence, unlike Michael Wilshaw, the newest Head of School Demoralisation, who merely opined that 5000 headteachers are rubbish, based upon the method of calculation he found on a scrap of paper at the bottom of the Ofsted biscuit tin:  ‘Make up a figure, times it by 5.  Signed, C. Woodhead.’

Therefore, I invite all readers to join with me in calling on the secretary of state for education to recognise this fact (not, you will note, one of Mr Gove’s cherry-picked, out-of-context bits of bullying fodder) and start to treat heads and all staff with the respect they deserve.  We can email him – ministers@education.gsi.gov.uk and receive, weeks later, one of those hugely irritating replies from a DfE wonk, telling us how marvellous government policy is and how we should all just knuckle down because it’s for the children, isn’t it?

I do urge everyone to give it a go, however.  Because if all we do is sit back and let it happen – then who have we to blame but ourselves?

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Helen Freeborn

Helen Freeborn was a secondary headteacher for 11 years until she gave it all up to live in Greece. Now returned after four years abroad, she divides her time between consultancy, training, a range of writing projects and catching up with all the television she has missed.

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