Recruiting and retaining headteachers – what do we know?

Why would someone choose to become a headteacher – and what enables a serving head to stay motivated, year after year, even when times are tough? How can heads best be supported to thrive? Finally, what do we know from existing evidence about the recruitment and retention of heads here in England?

These are questions we have been reading and thinking about in the light of our ongoing research into school leaders’ work and well-being during the pandemic. Here we ask four key questions – why do people aspire to school leadership, what helps sustain them in the job, what causes them to leave and what was the situation with the leader supply ‘pipeline” before the pandemic.

Let’s start with the motivation to become a head. During the summer term we interviewed 57 primary and secondary heads and asked them – among other things – why they first chose to become a head. (We will be publishing the full findings from these interviews in the autumn.) The answer invariably started with wanting to make a difference for children – the moral purpose of leadership. Many talked about wanting to pursue their vision for education, or about the pleasure they get from leading a team and watching staff members grow. Many had been inspired and encouraged by headteachers they had worked for in the past, but some had decided to apply because they felt they could do a better job than their predecessor. For some headship was a long-held aspiration, but the majority explained that their interest in becoming a leader had developed more gradually, as they progressed through their career.

Our findings chime with previous work in this area. For example, a recent review for the European Commission argued that motivation for becoming a headteacher reflects a combination of intrinsic factors such as altruism/moral purpose, wanting new challenges, and/or personal ambition, and extrinsic factors, such as increased professional status or income. Critically, of course, motivation must be sustained over time, so that heads continue to invest energy into their role.

Secondly, what enables a serving head to stay motivated over time? Chris Ingate, an experienced secondary headteacher in Hertfordshire, researched this question for his doctorate, tracking some of his case study schools and leaders over several years. His findings were published in two practitioner reports, inspired by the famous Clash song – Should I stay or should I go? (2006) and If I go there will be trouble (2010).

Reviewing the limited existing literature, Ingate suggests that there is ‘an undeniable pattern, with early headship, middle headship and experienced headship all featuring’ in phases over roughly the first 10 years in post. While early headship (1-3 years) might start with a honeymoon period and frequently feels exciting, it is also extremely challenging and can be overwhelming, as the new leader works to establish themselves and to diagnose and address pre-existing issues in the school (research by Peter Earley explored the new head phase in greater depth). For those that continue, middle headship (roughly 3-7 years) is about moving beyond quick fixes to pursue more strategic improvement, including by building relationships and distributing leadership so that the role itself becomes more manageable. Beyond this stage, once experienced heads have been in post for 10 or more years, some observers suggest they can reach a plateau and start wanting to look for new opportunities elsewhere, but Ingate’s longitudinal research shows that this is by no means inevitable. In our work last term we interviewed one head who had been in post for 30 years, who explained ‘I love the job. I’m not fed up at all. I’m not tired’, so we agree!

Heads can be, and often are, supported to thrive over time. Clearly, there are important roles that school governing bodies, academy trusts, local authorities, leadership development providers and national policy makers can play to help grow the next generation and to help existing heads to thrive. Each individual is different, so levels and types of support must be differentiated, but there are many generic approaches that will help – agreeing challenging but achievable goals; demonstrating trust and giving leaders space to make their own decisions; remembering to say thank you and to reward success; ensuring that accountability does not become overwhelming, in particular for heads in deprived contexts; providing structured support from a mentor, coach or counsellor; investing in professional development; encouraging peer networks; taking a pro-active approach to managing workloads and addressing well-being concerns, and so on.

Nevertheless, these forms of support are not always in place and many heads do leave before retirement age. Our previous research highlights why it can be difficult for serving headteachers to remain motivated over time. A complex mix of factors influence individual decision-making, including: workload, lack of work/life balance, accountability pressures, a focus on administration rather than instruction, policy churn, isolation and lack of support, and, in recent years, limited pay progression. A recent study of teachers’ decision-making undertaken by RAND reinforces these points, highlighting that while pay and benefits are important, workload and culture are often more significant factors in retention.

Finally, what do we know about the recruitment and retention situation in England from existing evidence? The picture here does not appear great. Even before the pandemic there were challenges with recruiting and retaining heads. For example, the Department’s own analysis showed that 9% of primary heads and 14% of secondary heads left the state-funded sector between 2015 and 2016, and that retention rates for younger headteachers had declined over a period of years. More recent evidence, collated by Professor John Howson, shows that almost 1,500 primary head teacher vacancies were advertised in 2019-20, and that 28% of these had to be re-advertised. At secondary level, the readvertisement rate was 23%. Worryingly, a recent survey for NAHT indicated that growing numbers of middle and senior leaders are choosing not to apply for headships, while successive analyses by the government’s School Teachers Review Body have highlighted issues with the under-representation of women and BAME groups in headship. According to NfER, headteacher recruitment challenges are most acute for schools in deprived contexts, schools with lower Ofsted gradings, and newly sponsored academies in Multi-Academy Trusts, although earlier research has also highlighted significant issues in other parts of the system, such as small rural schools and faith schools.

The key question is whether this situation has changed as a result of the pandemic, and if so, how. Our next post – due on Friday 17 th September – will share findings from our national survey on how the pandemic has impacted on leaders’ career plans.

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

Author: pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK

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