Anecdotal and empirical evidence show a decline in the supply of people who want to become heads, while a number of factors mean demand can only increase over the next five years.
"Rarely… has there been as much concern over finding the next generation of school leaders as there is now."- Professor John Howson
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Sources agree that schools are finding it hard to recruit a headteacher.
In January 2013 Education Data Surveys found that 26% of the 261 primary schools advertising for a new headteacher had to re-advertise within two months. This was an 11 percentage point increase compared to the same period in 2012.
According to a National Governors’ Association survey from September 2015 the situation has not improved. Forty-three per cent of 4,383 respondents reported that it was difficult to find good candidates when recruiting senior staff. Some geographic areas may also be harder hit than others. For example, Schools North East reported in June 2014 that many governors they worked with were not getting the applications they needed.
This decline is likely to continue due to the number of heads leaving headship. A report for the Mayor of London found that over 50% of headteachers in the capital are aged 50 or above and approaching retirement.
In a survey of 286 headteachers conducted by The Future Leaders Trust and Times Educational Supplement (TES) 28% of respondents said they were planning to leave headship within five years. More sobering was that over half said they did not expect to be a headteacher in ten years.
Other research suggests that positive attitudes towards headship have declined.
A 2015 survey of school leaders by The Key, an information service for school leaders, found that 86.8% of respondents believed headship was less attractive than it was five years ago. This is an increase of 12 percentage points since 2014.
This suggests a clear decline in positive perceptions since 2009, when the last National College of School Leadership annual opinion survey found 92% of heads thought being a head was ‘a great job’ and 86% would recommend it to their staff.
Increasingly negative attitudes
A body of academic work explores the specific reasons that lie behind school leaders not applying for headship roles. Some relate it to perceptions of the role; it is associated with high levels of stress and workload due to school accountability measures or administrative responsibilities.
Some believe that female and Black, Asian and Minority Ethnicity (BAME) leaders may be discouraged from headship because of a perceived bias in the selection process.
Others say that people are less likely to apply and relocate for headteacher positions in particular schools, for example those in areas or communities deemed to be unattractive. Relatively isolated or economically deprived areas are thought to be less attractive because there are few jobs for partners and longer travel times for those who commute. We explored these issues in our report on coastal schools, Combatting Isolation.
Taking up a headship in a challenging school with a poor Ofsted judgment is seen as a career risk because failure to improve the school quickly may be seen as failure and lead to being replaced.
Unsurprisingly it’s disadvantaged students in areas with relatively few opportunities, in schools that must improve, who are most affected significantly by these negative perceptions of headship.
It is also possible that demand for headteachers will rise. Plans to create 500 new Free Schools, the creation of new CEO and executive head roles in multi-academy trusts and the conversion of schools into sponsored academies could add new vacancies to an already over-stretched labour pool. Our initial estimate is that this could result in over 1,000 additional vacancies over the next five years.
The Future Leaders Trust is dedicated to developing new headteachers for England’s most challenging schools. It recruits and trains high-potential school leaders who are committed to improving the schools where disadvantaged children consistently underachieve. As of January 2016, we have supported 160 leaders to headships in challenging schools.
The aim of this report is to change perceptions of headship more widely. The accounts of Future Leaders in the report show that being a headteacher is challenging but achievable and is a role that brings significant autonomy and fulfilment.
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This article originally appeared on the website of the Ambition School Leadership. In March 2019 the Institute for Teaching merged with Ambition School Leadership to form Ambition Institute.