I have been a head teacher for 16 years. At my Performance Management this week my governors asked about my well being. EVERY governing body should be asking that question right now because headship has become toxic. That is not to say it is not the greatest job in the world – but it should now come with cigarette pack graphic health warnings.
I know of the stresses that the worst of headship can do. When working at a school in special measures four years ago I suddenly become impotent… I was working in a climate that was so disorganised, full of surprises and challenges that it impacted upon the way my body functioned. Overnight it all just changed (It lasted the whole time I was in the school and took months to recover from). It clearly illustrated to me, a 40-something-runner and pretty healthy person the power that stress can have. The speed with which it can overwhelm. Before that I used to say… I deal with stress. It wasn’t until I saw what it could do that I actually began to understand I didn’t deal with real stress as well as I needed to.
More than ever it seems to me that head teachers are either leaving, retiring, sacked, publicly shamed out of office, deemed unable to do the job (When not 6 months earlier they were praised), unwell or just plain unhappy… I could write a weekly blog ranting about my perceived injustices and the inequality I face… Weekly. That in itself though is part of the problem. My old head Neil Tuttiett, who suddenly died this year, used to say that classic line, “Don’t bring me problems… bring me solutions” Being solution focused is tough right now though. Wherever I look I see the immense challenges running a school brings… no matter the size of the school the problems are pretty much the same. How far is too far when school accountability is the focus? We seem to have so much accountability now.
Results driving the notion of a successful school becoming the norm. Based on an unfair system which is kept from schools… (Yes, though it has gone quite, last Years SATS debacle is not going to go away DFE)
Safeguarding and the lack of support schools receive to deal with major issues. This is almost a blog in its own right but the push back in to schools to deal with very vulnerable families and social problems has increased at such a rate that I feel we are basically becoming social services ourselves… minus the training and money to meet the need. I am seriously thinking about employing someone to take this work load on.
Parental expectations at an all time high.
Teachers well being and a clear recruitment crisis… I could just go on and on and then of course we get to…
Ofsted (Sorry Sean). I just feel that those reports use language that is brutal; the process outcomes are merciless if it goes wrong. 48 hours and BANG! I know of too many heads going after one bad Ofsted. Not sure that this is purely Ofsted’s fault – without fear or favour will bring just that. But, like the million e-mails I get stating Ofsted want this and Ofsted said this… it is Ofsted who need to tackle the climate this creates. This should be as high as the myth busting agenda… They have that responsibility. What if their inspectors are getting it wrong? The process to challenge an Ofsted just puts many head teachers off… their head sinks and they do not challenge the outcome – they just accept it, even as they rant how unfair it is… As I have said I have gone in to many schools and it takes weeks to find the strengths in some. The weaknesses are the easiest thing to find – usually within minutes. Where is the balance? Especially when the outcomes are career ending for some.
One problem is we live in a society that seems to revel in finger wagging and public shaming. I have seen Ofsted reports as top news stories far too often lately. The Ofsted triggers it and then the rest is usually made up or opinion that is based on a report that is based in the past… but, there has to be blood.
This time last year my football team Bristol City had started to go on what would become a record breaking losing streak. Facts and figures were being broken every week and more and more fans called for the manager to be sacked. I remember my son getting upset driving back from a cold and wet January loss as I said…
He’ll be gone by the weekend…
But, he’s good – my son kept saying…
It’s all about the results
The online forums were brutal, signs appeared outside the stadium – every aspect of his personal life and inability to get a win was viciously the public’s property. He refused to leave. The chairman stood by him. He came out publicly and said it was not in the best long term interests of the club. He was then being asked to stand down – months after he’s spent over 20 million building a new stand. One year on… Bristol City are 4th in the Championship and about to play Manchester United with 27,000 fans behind us in the last 16 of the Caraboo Cup.
How many of those head teachers leaving the profession could have turned it around if the had a chairman like Steve Lansdown of Bristol City. It may be impossible to stop anyone from being dragged over the coals and shackled to the stocks… but, it is always about the vision. It is always about the long term strategic plan… if more people were able to see that then school leadership would not be the toxic pit it is becoming.
To become the head teacher I am today (Experienced, passionate to get it right and knowledgeable but FAR from the finished article) I have had to be allowed to fail. I have had to work with failure. I have never willingly failed. I have never strategically planned failure (And I bet all those heads who left will say the same)… but I have made many mistakes and I have got things very wrong.
Why am I still here then?
When the mob are kicking down my door I have been ‘lucky’ to have people around me who have guided me through. I have gained trust and that trust has meant that these things can be tested against it. I have been ‘lucky’ that almost all the Ofsteds I have had were with reasonable inspectors who listened and could see what my schools are. I have been ‘lucky’ and yes I know we make our own luck but surely we need a better system to attract and keep headteachers in posts? Have I been lucky that I don’t go home and cry in the dark? Have I been lucky that I don’t feel sick as I walk in to school? Have I been lucky? Or, is it just a matter of time?
November 18, 2017 at 10:48 am
I have been through many ofsted and the majority have been very positive events but my last one left me devastated. The inspector from the moment of arrival was officious and difficult. Said she was not allowed to ask for information in a specific way but made it clear that was required. Refused to listen to anything the SLT said. Even made the governors feel like they had been through a major trauma and at the end declared us in need of improvement. Unfortunately my chair of governors took that to mean they needed radical change and became a micro manager and life extremely difficult. I suffered great anxiety and health issues and on the advice of my doctor left headship and teaching after a up till then an excellent career
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November 18, 2017 at 11:22 am
And it’s stories like this that need to be heard. I know it’s not straightforward but if you had been successful up to that point… why do we end up with a system that can do this to people?
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November 18, 2017 at 4:05 pm
As a new ‘young primary head’ so much of this resonates.
Parental expectations are insanely high! It took an hour to show 2 parents around school last week, we only have 4 classrooms but their questions were on a par with Ofsted. This week a parent commented that if the schools doesn’t maintain it’s outstanding status (2008!) then the community will suffer as their house prices will fall!
I started in September and looked like a young head- I am beginning to wonder how quickly this role will age me!
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November 18, 2017 at 7:21 pm
Grey hair comes in around year 5…
November 19, 2017 at 10:43 am
Fourteen years as a head in three schools. Love the job but the challenges are massive. Over the years I have seen many decent human beings leave when they still have much to give. As a junior school head, at present, the pressure because of data is daft. My biggest advice is develop your team by tackling weakness and growing the best. Headteachers get the governors they deserve so develop this area. If you do this then you are not on your own and any challenge can be addressed together. Good luck to all leaders, be proud and be strong!
November 19, 2017 at 11:43 am
Thanks James. Agree with this 100%