A governor’s most important task

Jan. 26, 2016
Emma Knights

Emma Knights

Chief Executive, National Governors’ Association

Recruiting a headteacher is likely to be the most important task of a governing board and yet it hasn’t had the spotlight it deserves.

Governors and trustees know it is a great responsibility, but it is made far more difficult by the fact that we don’t see the number of good candidates that we need.

There has been significant concern about the shortage of recruits for senior leadership positions, particularly headships, for at least a decade.

There are also some types of school where the recruitment of headteachers has been particularly difficult: small, rural or with a religious character where the headteacher is required to practice the faith. However, more recently the shortage of candidates has extended into other areas.

The National Governors’ Association (NGA) carries out an annual survey of governors and trustees with the Times Educational Supplement. In 2015, of the 4,383 respondents who had recruited to a senior leadership post over the past year, 43% agreed that it was hard to recruit. This was similar in different types of schools ranging from 44% in primary to 40% in special schools, but there were significant regional differences, with most problems reported in the South East and London.

We don’t know as much as we should about how this compares with other fields or about the causes of the problem. Headship can be pressured and potentially lonely, and maintaining a healthy work/life balance can be difficult. Although a good chair and governing board will support the head, this is the nature of top leadership posts. Is school leadership less attractive because of the data-driven accountability? Or could it be that teachers don’t seem to move around the country as much as other professionals?

"In a 2015 survey by the National Governors’ Association, 43% of respondents reported it was difficult to find good candidates when recruiting senior staff."

Has the shortage got anything to do with the fact that teaching is a female-dominated profession but women are under-represented in headship? NGA is working with other organisations this year to encourage more women to put themselves forward for leadership, and we need to encourage arrangements such as job-shares.

A contributing factor could be teachers’ lack of experience in applying for jobs. Many governors have experience of recruiting in their professional lives, and the first time they are involved in school recruitment can be surprise: the quality of some applications is shocking.

Another unknown is how good governing boards are at identifying the best candidates. NGA provides advice but actually there is limited intelligence available on which exercises work best as part of the assessment process. We are involved in a small-scale study with the University of Bath looking into this.

We need to re-double the efforts in succession planning and preparing talented people for leadership, while supporting and valuing those great teachers who want to stay in the classroom. We need to be more creative and braver: does every school actually need a traditional ‘headteacher’? Groups of schools – federations and multi-academy trusts – give the opportunity for different roles that could help the recruitment problem. Allowing a head of school to lead teaching and learning, without the full business responsibilities of running an organisation, could be an all-round win.


This article is taken from our report "Heads Up: Meeting the challenges of headteacher recruitment". Click here to download a PDF.


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.

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