Heads we lose – The real reasons why schools find it hard to recruit leaders

COMMENT – I found myself gazing at a photograph of Michael Wilshaw today.  It accompanied an article in the Telegraph of 17th November, describing a speech at the London Festival of education by the current Ofsted Ming the Merciless.  I read the article, then I looked at his photograph and do you know what, dear reader?  When I held it up to the mirror, Wilshaw had no reflection. Honestly.

His speech, for those of you who find yourselves unable to read or hear anything this man says without experiencing the desire to join a mob armed with flaming torches and march on Ofsted HQ, contained the view summarised by the writer as “being a head teacher was a brilliant, well paid job and that school leaders had no grounds to complain.”

His comments also contained the opinion that being a head – even of a ‘failing’ school – was a “brilliant” job, that heads were better paid than ever and that he had no time for any heads who “go around moaning.”

As anyone who has ever read any of my articles in SMT magazine will know, I’m often astonished by how often Wilshaw and his non-identical twin Gove bowl me up donkey-drop targets.  It was, therefore, such a delight to find this article only the day after a visit from a good friend who is a serving head teacher that I found myself starting to wonder if there is now a patron saint of writers who used to be head teachers.  If there is, he’s called Saint Ted of Wragg, bless him.

This friend, you see, is currently in her second headship at a very challenging school and was recently invited to apply for what many would call a ‘high-performing’ academy.  Her description of how the interview process was conducted and the manner in which she was treated was so jaw-droppingly awful that I find my mouth making a little O even as I think about it now.

Before I tell you about it (and I have her permission so long – obviously – as I don’t give names and pack drill), I need to mention the fact that around 25% of schools currently do not have a permanent head teacher.  You need to bear this fact in mind along with this one:  Ofsted has now been in existence for 20 years, and yet their own statistics appear to show that the organisation has had no positive impact on standards whatsoever.

But back to my friend’s experience.  She stumped up on the appointed first day of a two day process to what I’m going to call St Dorries Academy (St Dorries being the patron saint of those who have lost their senses) and reported to reception, where she was presented with a visitor name badge.  Upon it she observed that they had spelt her name incorrectly.  My friend is almost completely certain that in her application she did get the spelling of her own name right, I should add.  It’s the sort of thing you wonder if you should make a fuss about, but decide not to and treat it instead as a one-off error, isn’t it?  I even recalled that about twenty years ago I was interviewed for a deputy headship, during which I realised that the chair of governors had me completely mixed up with another candidate – who was subsequently appointed; during the final panel interview, the head teacher himself revealed that he was making the same error, as he kept calling me Susan.  I’ve often wondered whether he was stunned, when she turned up, to find that she was tall, blonde and in her early fifties, rather than short, dark and 31.

Anyway, the interview process wore on and my friend went to her first panel interview, ‘Finance’.  I have to say, especially to governing or trust bodies out there, that interviewing serving heads about Finance is a bit like asking President Obama things like ‘What is your favourite colour?’ or ‘How many suits have you got?’  In other words, anyone who’s run a school for more than a couple of years can answer these questions in their sleep.    My friend had lots of time – whilst giving excellent answers to easy-peasy questions, therefore, to notice that the chair of the panel had written, in red, on the top of her application form the number ‘55’.  That’s her age, in case you hadn’t already guessed.

Yes, indeed – we seem to have gone full circle with equal opportunities and gone back to the time when appointing panels didn’t just keep their prejudices nice and warm deep inside them, they wore them like a nice, big, attention-seeking hat, a bit like the one sported by the Mad Hatter.  It might even have a large, daisy-like flower on the front of it.  My friend wasn’t the only person present whose attention was drawn to this big, red number – the advisor present also spotted it and as casually as possible, pulled her own set of papers over it.  It’s funny in some ways, isn’t it?  You can be a High Court judge well into your seventies, or an MP, or keep voting on important matters of state in the House of Lords for as long as you breathe – but some governors and trust members think that someone in their fifties, albeit with a superb record in headship, is so old and past it that their age has to be stated in blood-red numerals.  The average age at accession for the holders of the office of the US Presidency – the most important job in the world, I’d suggest – has been 54 years and arguably the most influential president of the modern era, Reagan, was 17 days short of his 70th birthday at his inauguration.

I need to return to the beginning of my article to explain my real point here, which is more than just to illustrate how badly wrong appointing bodies can be about those things which affect their judgments.  Michael ‘I was a brilliant head teacher and I can say what I like’ Wilshaw is in a unique position as Ofsted’s Chief Inspector, because what he says influences so many people.  He keeps telling the government his opinion of what makes a good head teacher and this has included the astonishing suggestion that teachers in schools with his kind of ‘good’ heads have low morale.  He keeps telling the government and the general public that head teachers have never been better paid, have a ‘brilliant’ job and should not, therefore, complain about anything.  And he keeps telling the government, the general public and teachers – including those who might aspire to headship themselves – that his way is the right way.

I mentioned earlier that some 25% of schools cannot find a permanent head teacher.  Looking at the way in which already successful heads are treated, the way in which recruitment is mismanaged by some trusts or governing bodies and how the Chief Inspector of schools seeks to influence the way in which schools are led – is anyone actually surprised that increasing numbers of talented, potential head teachers are deciding that the job’s not worth the candle?

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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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