Succession planning for headteachers – could local solutions still work?   

In this post we ask how succession planning for headteachers in England could be improved; so that every school is able to recruit and retain a high quality headteacher, and the overall headteacher pool becomes more diverse and representative? 

At the end of November we held an online seminar on this topic, at which we shared the finding from our Leading in Lockdown research report that two in five school leaders in England plan to leave the profession early within the next five years. The report highlights that this picture remains fluid: our interviews with headteachers found that the vast majority are struggling with their workload and well-being as a result of the pandemic, but while some have made a firm decision to leave others could be persuaded to stay if national and local conditions were to improve.        

The report’s findings build on our previous blog post, in which we looked at the existing evidence on recruiting and retaining headteachers. This highlighted that even before the pandemic there were challenges with recruiting and retaining heads, but also that school governing bodies, trusts and wider policy makers can provide individual and systemic support to help grow the leadership pipeline and sustain leaders in role.

A recording of the seminar, which was chaired by Sara Ford from ASCL, and included panel responses to the research from Karen Giles (Executive Headteacher), Emma Knights (CEO, National Governance Association), and Steve Munby (former CEO, National College for School Leadership) is available here.  

Steve Munby reflected on how the National College for School Leadership (NCSL) worked to address a significant succession planning crisis between 2006-2011, when large numbers of baby-boomer generation headteachers were approaching retirement. At that time, each of England’s 21,000 or so governing bodies was responsible for recruiting and retaining its own headteacher, although Local Authorities, dioceses and others played supporting roles. Many governing bodies lacked the skills to do this well, and there were incentives baked into the system for schools to hoard and compete for talent. Addressing shared strategic priorities, for example to diversify leadership, was particularly difficult in such a devolved system. Furthermore, different schools face different contextual challenges: for example, developing and recruiting heads for small, rural faith schools is very different to doing so in large, urban secondary schools. For all these reasons, the College adopted a ‘local solutions’ approach, seeking to bring schools and other stakeholders together in each area of the country to collaborate on growing and retaining heads. These local partnerships received funding and support and could tap into a national framework of leadership development programmes, including the National Professional Qualification for Headship (NPQH), which was made mandatory for all new heads. An independent evaluation by Professor Tony Bush found this approach was broadly successful in staving off the crisis.

The panel discussed how equivalent strategic succession planning priorities might be addressed today, for example if large numbers of leaders do decide to leave as a result of the pandemic? 

The panellists agreed that many of the core issues pre-date the pandemic, so there was support for the recommendations in the report around rethinking the role of accountability and support for schools. Headteachers consistently report that accountability pressures, bureaucracy, workloads, insufficient funding and wider austerity can all combine to make the job challenging. Potential future headteachers can be put off by these pressures, although when they actually take on the role they often come to see its positive aspects, such as the ability to make a greater difference to more children. To address this, Karen Giles described how she has created associate headteacher roles, which enable talented leaders to step up and take on greater responsibility for whole-school leadership, but within a supported framework, with an expectation that their next step will be full headship. The challenge is knowing when to push them on – ‘when are you going to move out and get your own flat? That kind of analogy!’  

The panellists also agreed that the pandemic has created unprecedented challenges for heads. However, the evidence on how it is impacting is sometimes contradictory, so it is hard to assess the long-term impact. For example, annual surveys of governing bodies by the NGA indicate that the number who are finding it very difficult to recruit high quality candidates has actually fallen over the last five years, to 30% in 2021. Despite this decline, Emma Knights explained that recruiting and developing leaders is one of the top three priorities for governing boards this year.       

There was agreement that some Multi-Academy Trusts (MATs) have high quality HR expertise and approaches to developing talent across multiple schools. For example, one of us researched MAT and federation approaches as part of a wider study, finding that many school groups place a high priority on talent spotting and development. One MAT Chief Executive described ‘incessant conversations’ with and about the trust’s future leaders, aimed at ensuring that anyone with ‘itchy feet’ is given new opportunities before they apply for jobs elsewhere. Most trusts and federations also run or access development programmes for middle and senior leaders, sometimes with a focus on preparing future principals.

However, the panel recognised that the fragmented nature of the English school system means it is hard to see where responsibility and capacity for strategic succession planning now lies. We now have multiple players – MATs, Teaching School Hubs, Regional Schools Commissioners, National Leaders of Education, local authorities, dioceses and, of course, individual schools and their governing bodies.  As one participant reminded us, there are still many thousands of schools that are not in a trust or federation.

The government is now seeking to implement a tighter national framework for teacher and leadership development. The Early Career Framework and revised National Professional Qualifications (NPQs) for leadership aim to create a ‘golden thread’ which all schools and teachers can access via the new Teaching School Hubs. Clearly, the hope is that the new NPQs will enable a pipeline of future leaders to be identified and developed, but this is by no means a given. The new NPQ framework focuses on a largely technical and ‘domain-specific’ model of leadership, with limited emphasis on the kinds of strategic, organisational and values-based leadership that successive systematic and meta-reviews (for example, here, here and here) have found to be essential for successful senior leadership in schools.  The new version of NPQH does not include a placement project in another school, meaning that opportunities for experiential learning, network development and systemic knowledge-sharing will be lost. These issues raise the risk that the new NPQ framework might have limited impact on headteacher recruitment and retention, especially if it operates within a system that remains locally fragmented.

So what might be done?  Steve Munby argued that ‘local solutions has got to be the way forward, not a national top-down solution’.  However, Emma Knights highlighted that the government’s forthcoming white paper seems to be heading in a different direction, aiming to encourage all schools to join a MAT, which could make place-based approaches more challenging.  She argued that the answer lies in culture change, in particular in terms of how governing boards work with school leaders to provide challenge, support and development.  The panellists agreed that although there has been progress in some areas that could make headship more manageable, such as flexible working and job-shares, there is more to do to learn from good HR practices in other sectors.  Finally, it was suggested that we need to look for new, potentially disruptive, examples of how schools and school groups can work to rethink leadership for a post-Covid world.     

Photo by Rob Wicks on Unsplash

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