Head teachers are in short supply- It’s a significant challenge that we need to address now

The Telegraph, 14.11.16, parents and pupils alike know the importance of a good school headmaster or headmistress. They can lift or lower a school’s performance through their choice of staff and strategy and the standards they bring to bear writes HMC Chair Mike Buchanan, Head of Ashford School.

So warnings this week of future shortages of school leaders will be a worry to families with children due to be educated in the coming years – but there are actions we can and should take, now.

The Future Leaders Trust, Teach First and Teaching Leaders believes that we are facing the challenge of a shortfall of between 14,000 and 19,000 school leaders by 2022, affecting one in four schools in England.

This is indeed one of the immediate, pressing, urgent practical issues for English education and its roots are to be seen in the Government’s current education consultation, “Schools that work for everyone”.

The consultation maps out the need: “the demographic pressure for good school places is increasing: primary pupil numbers grew by over 11 per cent between 2010 and 2016 and are projected to increase by a further 4 per cent between 2016 and 2020. Secondary pupil numbers are projected to increase by around 10 per cent between 2016 and 2020”.

Translated, this means a need for about half a million new secondary school places and somewhat fewer new primary places by the middle part of the next decade.

New schools will be a necessity - and new schools require new leaders. Add to that the current pressure  to replace those in existing schools who leave the profession, and it adds up to a demand for thousands of new heads.

If the proliferation of Multi-Academy Trusts (MATs) is added to the mix, bringing with them a new chief executive-style band of school leader, the problem becomes all the more acute.

In short, demand is outstripping supply. There just aren’t enough school leaders to go around.

The evidence suggests that after the quality of teaching, the quality of leadership is the most important factor in helping to determine the outcomes for children at school. These two dwarf all other improvement strategies and need laser-like focus. Great governing bodies know this; which is why they agonise over appointing heads and despair as recruitment becomes ever more difficult.

We need to be resourceful, open-minded and creative when it comes to encouraging people into school leadership. Here are three areas where we might find some of those thousands of future leaders.

1.  The majority of teachers are women. The majority of heads, deputy heads, assistant heads and school business managers are men. Hence, we have a pool of women to encourage into leadership by getting the climate and culture of our schools right.

David Halpern, at the Behavioural Insights Team, advises nudging people in all sorts of ways including scanning adverts and job descriptions for gender biased language and indicators of male cultures. Recently we did just this for a senior position at my school  (Ashford School) and completely reversed the ratio of men to women applicants. We appointed the best person – a woman.

2. The majority of heads and other school leaders are white and, it’s safe to presume, straight men. Why are capable people from other backgrounds not reaching the summit of school leadership?

Claire Harvey, paralympian, Ashford School parent and Diversity Champion at KPMG, tells us that this statistic will never move until we start taking positive steps to make it move.

In schools, we can learn a great deal from the large corporates which are way ahead in this respect. Start by measuring so you know the scale of the issue and can see how it is changing over time.

Now change the climate and culture in schools to encourage greater diversity. If you don’t, you are missing out.

3. The majority of school leaders serve a lengthy apprenticeship of 10-20 years of classroom teaching and middle leadership before becoming a senior leader in schools.

Understanding how children learn and develop is vital when running a school, as are highly focused business skills. I have yet to come across a successful head who does not combine these with deep care and clarity of purpose.

Does that mean people who have not served lengthy apprenticeships are incapable of this successful combination? In my view, no.

There will be some, perhaps only a few, with backgrounds outside schools who have the nous to learn quickly and to surround themselves with capable lieutenants.

It’s commonplace in some schools, my own included, to recruit on the basis on the person’s values, attitudes and behaviours and to provide them with the leadership skills they need if they do not have them. So, we need to reassess how we develop our existing teachers as leaders as well as those new to schools.

The extra pupils heading for our schools over the next decade mean we need to find capable school leaders at a time when the number of graduates entering the job market is decreasing and the economy is strong.

It’s a significant challenge.  Let’s work imaginatively together to address it

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