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‘Sir’ is a state school English teacher in a big city in the UK. Prior to this he worked with children with a variety of Special Educational Needs, particularly those with behavioural and social problems. His teaching has been rated as ´Outstanding´ by Ofsted which means he once did a great job for 50 minutes. Save for a light dusting of fiction in order to protect the innocent (and indeed the guilty) anything recounted here is absolutely true. Otherwise, there will be some exciting political debate where everything Sir thinks is also absolutely true. Twitter: @seekingsir

20 May 2015

Symptoms and Causes…

Nicky Morgan has fired her first salvo. And her first point of attack is not teachers, but Heads. 

According to Nicky, one of the 'big priorities' of her new government will be 'to speed up the process for tackling failing schools'. The first step, she states, will be to 'take new powers to step in from the moment that a school is found to be failing'.  Nicky’s plan is to ensure that failing heads (and probably a fair few of those insouciant ‘coasters’ too) will be required to work with a team of ‘expert’ leaders, including other, more successful heads. They’ll be given some time to implement the recommended changes; if they fail, their school will most likely face academisation and they shall be unceremoniously deposed.  Schools that 'aren't able to demonstrate a clear plan for improvement will be given new leadership'.  In short, ship up or ship out.

The controversies of academisation aside, so far, so fine to most people in education of rational mind.  I have some significant reservations about an ex-corporate lawyer assuming the mantle of leader of the educational vanguard (can you imagine a Harris / Ark merger… Christine Blower would probably actually explode) but let's make no bones about it: there are some poor Head Teachers out there that run poor schools.  For the good of the kids - and in many cases the staff - they need to improve their leadership or they need to go. 

The problem is that all this talk of fixing what’s broken in educational leadership seems to obfuscate the real question: namely, why is it so broken in the first place? According to government stats, there are over 3000 schools in the UK that are currently either outright failing or languishing in a culture of stagnated results where room for improvement is (allegedly, at least) clear.  It must be said, too, that this is hardly a new problem - see this from as far back as 1995 or this from 2007.  

Simply put, being a Head Teacher is a job that nobody wants.  Indeed, not only is it difficult to attract top quality candidates for headship positions, it is proving increasingly difficult to attract anyone at all.

A poor primary Head was, very righty, ousted from post in my local area recently, leaving a perfect opportunity for an aspirational young Deputy to take up the position.  For a more experienced candidate, the role should have been equally appealing: remuneration for the size and nature of the school wasn’t half bad and it appeared an eminently manageable job.

So the governing body advertised.

After a month, the first advert had not received a single response.  

So they readvertised.  After another month, the second advert had not received a single response.  

At the third time of asking they gave up and were forced to accept the local authority’s imposition of an executive ‘Super Head’.

For £75, 000 per annum for a role that was ostensibly very appealing, they couldn’t muster even one, solitary candidate for the post in a full three months of asking.  In the local context, this is hardly surprising: average applications for Headship positions in the area currently stand at a paltry 0.8 per role.

But when you look at the state of the profession in general, this too should come as little shock – the latest statistics indicate that a record 49,373 qualified teachers left state schools in the 12 months between November 2013 and November 2014.  That’s around 4000 teachers walking out every month.  And these are not union statistics – they are the DfE’s very own.  Not exactly the stable platform upon which great leaders can thrive.

So Nicky, I’m afraid the secret is out: teaching isn’t quite the utopian land of perpetual learning joy inhabited by the second-rate Gap models who seem to grace all Teach First adverts. It’s a bloody tough place. 

To be quite frank, for most of society’s brightest, teaching has about as much appeal as the thought of your predecessor in a thong.  So demanding is the role in schools with particularly challenging catchments, or where the more ludicrous work-place demands of academisation are rife, that teaching in these schools is a form of masochistic altruism that will only appeal to the most hardened of educational crusaders or sniveling careerists.  Throw in a culture of interminable top-down targets and a creeping culture of 'results at all costs' (which is the reality of the politicians' euphemistic weasel-phrase, 'no excuses') and most people with a semblance of self-regard would not touch these jobs with a barge pole.  If they do, they soon realise the damage being done to them and vote with their feet.

So here’s the thing that must be understood: poor educational leadership is not so much causal as symptomatic of a wider and deeper malaise at the bottom of the teaching pyramid. It is little wonder that there remain issues at the profession’s peak when there are so many more at the base through which leaders must necessarily ascend. 

As such, addressing the problems of inadequate Head Teachers is at best a piece of a much larger puzzle.  At worst, it is mere political window dressing.  Short term, if we are to provide the conditions conducive for leaders to effectively lead, we must ensure that those over whom they preside stop leaving the profession in such wilful droves.  Longer term, if we are to create lasting change and imbue the profession with the consistently high-quality leadership that many of our schools so desperately require, there must first be a discursive shift in how the teaching profession is viewed by wider society.  Of course, all of this will necessitate a perquisite shift in the nature of the job as it currently stands or this hierarchy of problems would not have come into existence in the first place: until the job of teaching becomes more attractive, the leadership conundrum will endure.  Executive Heads, Outstanding with a capital 'O' though they may be, are a poor substitute for good Head Teachers on the ground in all schools which, one would hope, is not too much to ask.

It is this shift, and how to facilitate it, that constitutes Nicky Morgan’s most pressing challenge.  There is no point calling for more wheat and less chaff if you can't get your seeds to stay in the ground for long enough to actually grow (or even get them into the ground in the first place).


  1. You don't mention the sad demise of the National College. Do you think this contributed?

  2. The NCTL? Not greatly, to be honest although it's certainly another possible factor. I think the greater rot is bottom up - teacher training applications are now down 12% on last year, for example - https://www.tes.co.uk/news/school-news/breaking-news/teacher-training-applications-fall-12 - and one would assume this is (possibly) leading training colleges to accept lower quality applications if they have fewer to choose from in the first place.

    Generally, despite efforts made with Teach First and so on, people just aren't attracted to the profession in the most challenging areas because, very simply, it's so damn challenging. The sheer drive and commitment needed to work in these places put teaching firmly in the vocational rather than professional bracket (the adverb 'First' implies just that: do your bit, then get out and earn some proper money in, excuse the clunky phrasing, a 'professional profession'). Until this shifts somehow, I don't see much changing at the top.