I have been a head teacher for almost 20 years and therefore announcing that I was ‘retiring’ in a national newspaper yesterday because the job had become almost impossible made for a difficult read, especially for my wife.
Firstly, did I really say that? I did. It was certainly how I felt as I spoke to the journalist. Therefore, did I really mean it? I am 53… retirement isn’t a choice I can make lightly right now and therefore, why did I say it and what did I mean by it?
The truth is, I have been saying this for some time now. I have spoken to my brilliant chair of governors (who understands issues like this as a senior HR professional), mentioned it at my Performance Management reviews for the last two years but, truth be told… I am not ready to retire from education. I don’t want to walk away from this job. I still love so much about it. I am good at it and wouldn’t have lasted 20 years as a head teacher if I wasn’t. So why am I shooting my mouth off and making such emotive and confrontational announcements? My inbox is full of people wishing me all the best or registering shock at this sudden announcement. I feel a little embarrassed by it all.
Desperation? Fear? An overbearing sense of inadequacy? Like I said I am not really sure but this much I do know.
Front line headship feels really toxic right now. It is a poisonous position for far too many school leaders. An Ofsted hierarchy lost in school improvement rather than championing the incredible work schools now do holding back the social tsunami of issues facing front line school leaders. Economic, social care and mental health issues are the major issues schools are dealing with. It seem like society is drowning in a multitude of issues that schools need to deal with to do their job properly… the job of a school should be… to help students to acquire knowledge, competence, or virtue, via the practice of teaching. And yet, in 2023 this is just a sideline amongst the many roles a school ‘has’ to do to meet the needs of its community. You can’t do both and meet the Ofsted criteria. I’m finding this a tiresome narrative.
Education feels broken. As though we are cascading towards a watershed moment where school leadership becomes nothing but dark, confusing and unfulfilling. There was a time when being a school leader meant something. It’s harder to feel that right now. Post pandemic, as a school leader I feel more abused, more hated, less appreciated and generally less effective than at any other time during my 20 year tenure as a head teacher. One of my reasons for leaving front line headship is after 20 years and nothing but success I can see how I can no longer do everything… I can’t solve the social issues we are facing and go through an Ofsted in the way I want to. My inbox is full of police notices, alerts for safeguarding concerns or behaviour logs, moans, resignations, complaints about cost or resources, and general issues not about a good education. When you run down the public sector, abuse it in such ways then I suppose you get what you put in, a system that can’t operate effectively any more. You could blame the system and I have seen that to a small degree via Ofsted? I am not a poorer school leader suddenly. In fact I would say my best years are ahead of me. I see far too many heads with huge experience walking away from our education system before the system swallows them up and spits them out. I think that is where my thinking is, that is why I am going public with my walking away from headship. I have had 20 successful years as a headteacher… to end it feeling a failure… that scares me… really scares me. Front line headship seems like a younger persons game now. Someone with energy and resilience not chipped away year after year by a system that basically puts the power for change and judgement in to the hands of people who aren’t school leaders. They may have dabbled. They may have some success as past leaders… but they know nothing of the stresses and needs within the system now. I have to balance my well-being alongside this role and the truth is I can see me failing in the near future. It is inevitable. Either through an Ofsted (I have had over 10 successful Inspections over the years and never feared Ofsted before), making cuts to budgets (I have never had a deficit budget), illness through the worry of complaints, or behaviour, or staffing issues… The more I think about it the more I realise that I would be stupid not to resign from front line headship. I envy my school improvement partner and colleagues who have changed their role and seem, happy!?!
I have just finished my book on Headship – Lessons from the Head’s Office. I have been editing it over the Christmas and I’m proud that I wrote it while still a head teacher. When it comes out in July 2023… will I still be a front line head teacher? I really don’t think I can be.
January 1, 2023 at 12:57 pm
I often mention you to others as an example of someone who’s become very successful in an important role having come from a non standard educational route.
I also know from my experience in the health service that it’s not our fault when things become too difficult, when we start to feel jaded, when we feel like all our efforts are leading nowhere. I’m sure you’ve been an inspiration to many and that you’re good at your job. That doesn’t mean you have to stay. We can’t fix everything that’s wrong in this country through education or health. Maybe by stepping away you’ll see more clearly what you really need and where you can still excel. That’s a shame but it’s ok for you to do what seems best for you now.
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January 1, 2023 at 10:13 pm
Thank you Mary. I know we have much in common in this area. I won’t be stepping away from education… I just can’t see how I can survive as a front line head teacher for much longer.
January 1, 2023 at 1:28 pm
Really sorry to read your thoughts. I follow you avidly on Twitter and although I say it with a very heavy heart, I agree with you entirely. Having just taken a school out of serious weaknesses I am now on my knees and face the future with the grim realisation that I will continue to be climbing the hill indefinitely. Good luck in your next venture and continue the great work on Twitter.
January 1, 2023 at 10:16 pm
I know well that fatigue from working within even bigger challenges than normal. Totally understand that realisation that maybe this is always how it’s going to be and how long can I sustain this. Take care.
January 1, 2023 at 5:47 pm
Dear Old Primary Head,
I want to wish you luck in the coming months, if this is to be your last year as a headteacher. I, too, retired from headship in August this year after 16 years as a successful head for all the reasons you state in your statement. Plus working for an increasingly more authoritarian academy trust.
However, I want to warn you of the feeling of losing your community. The pupils, the staff and yes, the parents (and I lived through a year of a very vindictive complaint) but the loss has been overwhelming. Working for an LA never replaces that sense of belonging you have in your own school. It gets better but prepare yourself for feeling bereft for a while.
I wish you all the very best for the next step in your career.
January 1, 2023 at 10:14 pm
Thank you Christine. I know nothing else but working in education. I will make sure I am very careful in the next step. There still feels like a long way to go.
January 2, 2023 at 6:48 pm
Christine I echo that completely. I got my new job at Christmas, knowing I was moving on in July. By February, I needed OH Counselling… I didn’t know what was happening to me… I was an emotional wreck. But 10 min of insight from the Counsellor saw me right. “You are leaving something that you have invested your social and emotional energies into for a decade… you are experiencing something akin to knowing that a close relative has a terminal illness…” Wow… like wow. It helped to frame just how much love and care many Headteachers invest in their learning community.
January 2, 2023 at 6:42 pm
All power to you my colleague. Sometimes you have to be on the outside to fight effectively. I left Headship in 2010, and have enjoyed immensely championing the elements of education that I hold dear every since closure from a job I loved.
I didn’t write a book… but I did leave a parting shot! I enjoyed writing it too! https://scip5.net/wp-content/uploads/2022/02/Diary_of_an_Ofsted_Inspection_2010.pdf
Best of luck
January 2, 2023 at 6:45 pm
I still remember seeing you on Have I got News For You and reading about that fiasco in The Sun. My first governors meeting as a head in Bristol was at you school.
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January 2, 2023 at 7:50 pm
I must have missed that article at the time… not like you to get a swear word in there!?! I also remember your heads conference Have I got News for You swear fest… very funny.
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January 2, 2023 at 9:58 pm
Funnily enough I wasn’t asked to do it again… tough but good times in Brizzl (-: