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Strong leaders are like good wine, they improve with age

Teachers keen to climb the career ladder should not rush the process, counsels Joanne Harper

Posted by Hannah Vickers | April 27, 2017 | Teaching

By Joanne Harper, Executive Principal UTC Reading and UTC Swindon

It is no secret in the education sector that several factors have contributed to a shortage of teachers in recent years, and in particular, teachers who can fill leadership roles. The hardline pruning of our sector’s funding combined with increasing demand on teachers’ personal time has understandably pushed many in the industry to opt to leave teaching behind.

During times of challenging reform, strong leaders will be required for us to be able to move ahead confidently

The growing pressures placed on school leaders is yet another issue deterring capable candidates from applying for headship. During times of challenging reform, strong leaders will be required for us to be able to move ahead confidently. The current difficulties within the education sector demand leaders who are able to comprehend all the internal workings of the school system to overcome the challenges highlighted above.

Gone are the days when teaching was the profession to be envied for its seemingly shorter working hours and long holidays. Many teachers now find themselves in a position where the pressure of succeeding in Ofsted inspections is compelling schools to enforce unrealistic workloads and unachievable targets. Yet, there is no let-up in other aspects of their responsibilities. The harsh reality is that many educators are expected to overhaul their life in the classroom at the cost of losing a large proportion of their free-time outside of it.  

This situation has been further exacerbated by the funding cuts imposed across all areas of education. This makes any reform difficult to carry out when there are little resources to work with. When we combine these concerns with the lack of any financial incentive to perform extra duties, we find that many are unmotivated to continue in their role and we have seen less teachers applying for roles with many educators opting to take early retirement or leave the profession altogether.

That said, on the flip side, many young teachers entering the profession seem to be in a rush to get into leadership positions and almost can’t wait to move onto the next step of their career ladder.

This has resulted in an inconsistent approach to recruiting for headship. Many capable leaders have simply been overlooked while newer recruits are considered. As a result there is a ‘new wave’ of ‘super head’ teachers coming through who don’t have the same outlook as older or more experienced head teachers. These young, exceptionally ambitious teachers often act with a business mind and focus on statistics and figures as a key measure of their success, which doesn’t always integrate well with the more moralistic measures that look at individual achievements.

The quality of leadership is, and should remain the most important factor that will help to determine the outcomes for children at school, as the leader’s direction and strategy will vastly affect the performance of the pupils. It is therefore imperative that we have staff who are experienced in the education field and are equipped with a certain level of knowledge to carry out this role.

One issue that has had an impact on the task of acquiring ‘good stock’ for headship roles is that candidates no longer need a headship qualification. Without this qualification, adequate training for the role is not being undertaken - resulting in new heads being less equipped than before, despite having to deal with an ever-growing mountain of challenges.

The aspiration of early headship through the new model of the ‘super head’ that measures metrics rather than wellbeing combined with the abolition of the compulsory headship qualification means that we are seeing some very ‘young heads’ (in experience terms) in schools who are simply ill-equipped to deal with the variety of problems that will undoubtedly come their way. This in turn will create stress and a certain disillusionment that may well see these heads either burnt out or following in the footsteps of their peers and leaving the profession altogether.

I would encourage those who are on a fast-track career towards headship not to rush the process, but to spend time in the classroom, work with their peers to learn more leadership skills, shadow existing heads and learn as much as possible about all aspects of running a school. Leading from the front and having confidence and authority develops over time.

So what can aspiring heads do? 

I would recommend that they take on extra responsibility, leading projects and initiatives, whilst seeking out varied management experience. Deliberately look for opportunities that take you outside of your comfort zone and take as much as you can from leaders around you. Ensure you have a plan for work-life balance. This will help individuals build up the skills necessary for headship, without piling on too much pressure too soon.

Prospective head teachers should also be thinking about alternative leadership models, particularly co-leadership or being part of a Multi-Academy Trust and working with an Executive Principal or CEO. Shared responsibility allows a less experienced leader to be eased into the duties and the role in partnership with another leader. This co-sharing of ideas, experience, thoughts and views will help the young head when it comes to taking the role on single-handedly.

It is important to build balance into your day. I set aside time to talk to students, take my lunch in the cafe and sit in on lessons so that I don’t lose what I enjoy most about my profession - I love to teach

As the Executive Principal of UTC Reading and UTC Swindon, I find that it is important to build balance into your day. For example, I ensure that I set aside time to talk to students, take my lunch in the cafe and sit in on lessons so that I don’t lose what I enjoy most about my profession – I love to teach. It is very easy to become overwhelmed with tasks but it is important to share responsibilities amongst staff, to delegate, to be self-aware and know your strengths and your weaknesses, and this unfortunately often comes with experience and confidence. Within my leadership team I encourage individuals to own initiatives and projects - for their benefit as much as my own, but the great aspect of this is that it alleviates some of the pressure on me.

Likewise, I think this links in to a moral responsibility that heads should extend beyond their own school and look to mentor and work with heads and leadership teams in other schools. As heads we should be imparting our knowledge, providing training for staff, the idea being that they are able to ultimately perform your role – whether they stay with you or not. Strong leaders want to provide the best opportunity for their staff to perform well because if they perform well this ultimately impacts on the children which holistically speaking is why we have all gone into education. So I take great pleasure in knowing that even if my staff move on they take their experience with them – and that is how collectively we can start to patch what is now a somewhat broken system back together.

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