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Headteacher recruitment – School leaders need better preparation and support

Unless schools change their approach to recruiting senior leaders, expect more burnout and more resignations, says Sir Michael Wilshaw…

Sir Michael Wilshaw
by Sir Michael Wilshaw
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The disruptions caused by several COVID lockdowns, coupled with rapidly escalating food, energy and staffing costs, has exacerbated many of the problems already affecting our education system well before the pandemic struck.

All students have suffered learning loss to varying degrees, but disadvantaged children and young people – who were already well behind their peers before the pandemic – have fallen much further behind.

The Education Policy Institute recently reported that by the age of 16, disadvantaged pupils are now 18 months behind their peers. In areas where poverty is deeply entrenched, that figure grows to two years. Regional disparities in educational standards, already stark before COVID, are therefore getting worse. The ‘rising tide of educational standards’ isn’t lifting all boats.

Moral imperative

This matters – not just because it’s a moral imperative to ensure poor children have the same opportunities as others, but also because there’s evidence to indicate that when schools do well by their poorest children, standards are lifted for all students and abilities.

That’s why, 20 years ago, the then Labour administration opened the first academies in some of the most disadvantaged communities in England – places with a long legacy of educational failure. The thinking was that by developing great schools in poor areas, those school would set an example and raise local school standards overall.

That certainly happened in Hackney, where I was appointed as one of the first academy principals. At the time, Hackney had for many years been a byword for educational failure; now it’s a shining example of high standards in London.

In 2023, however, headteachers in disadvantaged areas are still facing the same accountability measures I did, but are also having to also grapple with staff shortages, low morale and threats of industrial action by the main teaching unions over pay.

Intense pressures

The pressures weighing on heads, particularly those working in more challenging parts of the country, are intense. Headteacher associations are reporting that a growing number are now considering leaving their positions earlier than they anticipated.

This is deeply worrying. There’s a real danger that the school improvement momentum we’ve seen over the last few years will soon falter – and if that happens, the most vulnerable in the most disadvantaged communities will be the first to suffer. We desperately need a government which understands this issue and has clear strategies for addressing it, rather than a revolving door of Education Secretaries (eight in five years!)

In schools, positive cultures, rich curriculums, good student progress and achievement across the ability range all stem from having good leadership in place at all levels. As HMCI at Ofsted, I would insist that the quality of leadership at the schools and other institutions within Ofsted’s remit was the first judgement our inspectors made.

Lonely and stressful

Standards in certain parts of the country are declining because it’s difficult to recruit and retain school leaders with the resilience and determination the role demands. Too often, schools and trusts are forced to draw upon internal candidates lacking first-hand experience of what a good school even looks like – especially |in smaller schools or trusts with insufficient economic resources and/or personnel.

Schools and trusts need to adopt a more proactive and creative approach to senior recruitment. External specialists can help to identify potential candidates, while also supporting the difficult process of assessment, interview and selection, and then providing mentoring and professional development to newly-appointed leaders during those crucial first few months.

School leadership can be a lonely and stressful job at the best of times, but even more so for inexperienced leaders assuming the role for the first time. That’s why I’ve joined Academicis – a leadership search and support agency overseen by other recently retired headteachers with successful careers behind them. We want to recruit the next generation of leaders, and support them in one of the best, yet most challenging jobs society has to offer.

Our children and young people deserve to attend good schools that are led well by good leaders who are committed to them and to the communities they serve. The future of our country depends on it.

Sir Michael Wilshaw is Associate Director at Academicis and a former Ofsted HMCI

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