What do we know about the current school leadership labour market? 

We are currently finalising the report for the second phase of our Leading in Lockdown research, due for launch in early June.

Our project partners, the NAHT, released figures provided by the DfE based on the School Workforce Census (SWC) this week. These show that the number of headteachers under 50 who left the profession within five years of their appointment rose in the second half of the last decade, to 37% of secondary heads and 25% of primary heads. The findings have been covered widely in the media (see here, here, and here) and are discussed by Professor John Howson here.   

One strand of our research has involved working with John Howson and TeachVac to track the number of senior school leadership posts advertised in England in the first four months of 2022 (generally the busiest period for recruitment), comparing these to the equivalent period in the previous two years. These findings show that much higher numbers of school leaders are choosing to either move job or leave the profession in 2022.

Sharp rises in leadership vacancies in 2022 

The first chart below shows total adverts for head teachers between January and April over the three-year period. In primary, there has been a sharp increase in the number of head teacher posts advertised this year compared to both 2020 and 2021, increasing by more than a third between 2021 and 2022. In secondary, the situation has been more volatile, but is higher in 2022 (n=261) than in either 2021 (n=169) or 2020 (n=209).

Figure 1: Head teacher job adverts in England between January-April by year. Source: TeachVac.

The next two charts show the equivalent figures for assistant and deputy posts, for primary (Fig. 2) and then secondary (Fig. 3) schools.  The number of primary posts increased, by 80% since 2020 in the case of assistant heads. Similarly, in secondary, the number of posts advertised has increased sharply each year, by 75% over two years in the case of assistant heads.  

Figure 2: Primary Assistant and Deputy Head job adverts in England between January-April by year. Source: TeachVac.

Figure 3: Secondary Assistant and Deputy Head job adverts in England between January-April by year. Source: TeachVac.

Challenges in tracking change

It is challenging to track the English school leadership labour market ‘live’, especially after such a turbulent period, so these findings do have some caveats.

Firstly, the fact that a leadership post is advertised does not mean that the previous incumbent has retired or left the profession. Many adverts will reflect leaders moving job, to another school, so it is likely that some the increase in 2022 simply reflects an increase in the number of such moves after the lockdown had largely put them on hold.

TeachVac’s ability to monitor adverts and re-adverts for schools across England provides a good indication of changes in the labour market, but there are challenges in tracking job adverts comprehensively over time, for example because some schools and trusts choose not to advertise posts externally and because the number of schools – and therefore posts – changes as a result of changes in pupil demographics.

In addition to these practical challenges, the volatility of the school leadership labour market over the past two years makes it difficult to assess whether any recent changes are significant or not. For example, in most years, the three-month window between January and the end of March is the busiest period for advertising headteacher jobs. Around half of all jobs advertised in any given year tend to appear in this period. However, the pandemic has impacted on advertising patterns in both phases and the proportion of annual adverts in the January to March window was smaller in 2021 than in most ‘normal’ years. This volatility makes it harder to compare patterns over time.

A wider pandemic picture

These figures chime with the findings in our first Leading in Lockdown research report, published last November, which identified the huge pressures school leaders have faced during the pandemic and how this has impacted on their workloads, well-being and career plans. In the report we included comments from several head teacher interviewees who said they wanted to see their school through the lockdown period before leaving.

Our forthcoming report includes findings from a second national survey, undertaken by Teacher Tapp, as well as interviews with 42 assistant and deputy heads, carried out in early 2022. This provides a far more comprehensive picture of how the pandemic is impacting on leadership than we are aware of elsewhere.  

Leading in Lockdown – next steps for the research

Last November we published a report based on findings from the first stage of our research into how the pandemic has impacted on school leaders’ work, well-being and career intentions. In this post we share two posters which highlight some of the headline findings from that report. In addition, we outline the second phase of the research, which we are currently undertaking, with a view to publishing findings later in the spring.

Project posters

The two posters are shown below, with the option to download the poster with results if you want to share them more widely.

The first poster simply raises awareness of this website and of the research report. The use of post-it notes for ‘home’ and ‘work’, each of which includes a long list of ‘to do’ items, seeks to highlight the range of pressures that leaders have been under and the challenging decisions they have had to make during the pandem

The second poster draws out some headline findings from the research – the main high and main low for leaders, the impact on their well-being and career intentions, and the kinds of changes that might persuade them to stay in the profession. It includes the finding from the national survey carried out last summer that two fifths of leaders (40%) say they plan to leave the profession – for reasons other than full retirement – within the next five years.

We hope that you might want to use these posters to raise awareness of the research findings and to spark discussion about what can be done to support leaders more effectively, at both policy and practice levels, and how we can best equip the next generation to step up to headship.

We will be running a workshop on this theme at the ASCL conference, in Birmingham, on 11th March. We have applied for funding to undertake a wider consultation, in partnership with ASCL and NAHT, around how to enhance local support and succession planning for leadership, which will take place over the summer if we are successful. 

Next steps for the research

Building on the report published last November, we are currently undertaking further research into how the pandemic has impacted on school leaders work, well-being and career intentions. 

In this phase we:

  • are interviewing Assistant and Deputy Headteachers in primary and secondary schools to understand their experiences of leading in the pandemic, including how it has impacted on their career plans
  • have commissioned Teacher Tapp to survey teachers and leaders on their experiences of the pandemic as well as how it has impacted on perceptions of headship
  • are analysing national datasets, for example on job advertisements with Professor John Howson, to assess whether the pandemic appears to be impacting on the headteacher labour market. 

Please do let us know if you have any questions about, or comments on, the research.  Subscribe to this blog if you would like to receive notifications of new posts, including when we publish the new research findings, by email.

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

Shaken identities – what does UK research on school leadership in the pandemic tell us?

In a previous blog post we explored what can be learned from international literature on school leadership during and after natural disasters. In this post we consider existing research here in the UK on school leadership in the pandemic and some implications which flow from this.

A number of UK studies are tracking the impact of the pandemic – we have brought together a list of all those we are aware of here. Quite understandably, most studies focus on the impact on pupils, and particularly their learning, progress and well-being. Others focus on related issues, such as the nature and implications of online teaching and learning or how the pandemic has affected school budgets. Some studies are tracking schools’ and teachers’ experiences overall. A small number of studies – referenced below – have focused more specifically on leadership, although we are not aware of any that consider how the pandemic is impacting on school leaders’ career plans, the focus of our research.   

Empirical studies show that leading through the crisis has been the opposite of business as usual. Instead, leaders have faced a range of challenges and have needed to adapt and respond in numerous flexible ways:  

  • Policy overload: Fotheringham et al. (2021) show how an ‘avalanche of daily information’ from the national Department for Education (DfE) frequently overwhelmed school and Multi-Academy Trust (MAT) leaders, with 201 policy updates issued by the DfE over a 90-day period, including 11 documents on one single Sunday in April 2020.
  • Schools have struggled to pivot in the context of existing system pressures and issues: Nelson et al. (2021) identify issues for schools stemming from lack of funding, an overcrowded curriculum and an overly tight accountability framework. In a similar vein, Moss et al. (2021) include a range of findings on how primary schools are responding, but conclude that ‘the pandemic reveals just how patchy forms of support have become and how dependent on local connections and charitable giving schools now are’. Similarly, Jopling and Harness (2021) focus on school leaders’ well-being and vulnerability in the pandemic, but conclude that ‘What is more surprising is that leaders interviewed felt that, rather than being overwhelming in itself, the pandemic had had an amplifying effect on the greatest challenges they faced, which remained finance and accountability’.
  • School leaders have needed to prioritise flexible, values-based responses: Beauchamp et al. (2021) interviewed school leaders across the UK in the early stages of the pandemic. They highlight how responding to the challenges required considerable versatility and adaptive leadership. Many heads reported a need to distribute leadership more, as they sought to work flexibly and at speed. At the same time, they had to work hard to maintain a sense of ‘collective “us-ness” and commitment to shared values, which required transformational and values-based leadership backed by strong communications.
  • Shifts in school-community relations: Both Nelson et al (2021) and Moss et al (2021) highlight how the pandemic has driven changes in how school leaders think about and engage with families and their local community,withleaders needing to focus on communication and pastoral care, in particular in the most deprived contexts.
  • MATs have adopted robust, centralised approaches:  Day et al. (2021) studied responses within a sample of Multi-Academy Trusts (MATs), showing how they adopted robust, centralised approaches to supporting member academies while seeking to ensure collective, efficient and effective approaches to student engagement and learning. 

Beauchamp et al’s (2021) study chimes with the findings from our own research in highlighting how the removal of most of the regular school improvement routines which give structure and purpose to the work of leaders has had a profound impact on their identities and sense of confidence. For example, they quote this interviewee:

“I think from quite a personal point of view quite a large part of my identity is the job that I do, and I feel quite strongly that that identity has been taken away rather which has led to all sorts of levels of anxiety and worry.”

In a similar vein, Harris and Jones (2020) conclude that the pandemic has raised fundamental questions about the kinds of leadership we need in schools. They suggest that ‘unpredictability and uncertainty are now the watchwords of all those leading schools’ and that, as a result, ‘a new chapter in educational leadership is currently being written because of COVID-19… This leadership has no national standards, no guidelines, no stipulations no rubrics, at least not for now’.

It has long been argued that schools, like other organizations, now operate in contexts that are volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA), and that both leaders and the organizations that they lead must therefore become more adaptive – capable of continual change and innovation as well as efficiency and effectiveness. In practice, though, as Joe Hallgarten and his colleagues argue, England’s school system is the opposite of adaptive – rather, it is stuck ‘in improvement mode’, too often characterised by narrow technical and implementation-focused approaches to leadership. The question is whether, as we start to emerge from the pandemic, England’s system can better support its school leaders to lead adaptively to address the recovery challenges we face.

Join the debate:

We will publish the report of findings from our research in late November. Sign up here to attend two free themed webinars at which we will discuss the findings:

24th November – School Leadership in the Pandemic: What can we learn from local and national responses to the crisis?

29th November – School leadership in the pandemic: what can be done to support leaders in role and avert a succession crisis?   

Photo by Colton Sturgeon on Unsplash

Australian school leaders’ pandemic experiences

Australians have had a very different Covid-19 experience from those of us living in the UK. Until recently, rates of infection were kept low through a combination of restricted entry and quarantine, an effective track and trace system, internal border controls and extensive periods of lockdown. Melbourne has had the longest sustained period of lockdown in the world. Australian schools have offered various combinations of face to face and remote learning, depending on how the state was faring.

How have Australian school leaders coped? Recent Australian research give us some insights. Unlike our own research and that conducted in other jurisdictions, Australian researchers have been able to compare the current situation with continuous pre-pandemic data. The Australian Principal Health, Safety and Wellbeing Survey has been running for over a decade. It has consistently shown that Australian principals have complex jobs characterised by heavy workloads and considerable pressures and demands. Many Australian principals are at risk of suffering from adverse health conditions resulting from their work.

Professor Phil Riley and his colleagues have been able to identify changes in key aspects of school leaders’ work arising from the pandemic. They have recently reported on data from 2020, the first year of the pandemic. They found that:

  • The quantity of work expected of leaders declined. Leaders were still working at very high speeds, but for slightly fewer hours – from an average of 55.2 hours per week in 2019, to 54.5 hours per week in 2020. Some however still worked more than this (up to 69 hours). This is still a long working week, despite the small decrease.
  • The stress caused by workload did not decrease. Leaders still reported workload as the most significant stressor.
  • Jobs were less predictable in 2020 than before. Leaders were less likely to receive important information at the right time.
  • School leaders felt they were treated less fairly by their employers than before the pandemic. Trust and good relations between employees at the school level had however improved slightly.
  • School leaders reported higher levels of support from their immediate supervisor, and less family-work conflict.
  • Symptoms of burnout and depression were slightly higher than in 2019.
  • Leaders reported being more committed to the job than before.

The researchers’ conclusion is that “while Australian school leaders’ work environments remain very challenging and they continue to suffer from adverse health and wellbeing outcomes, the Covid-19 pandemic may have slightly reduced some of the usual pressures and hardships of the school leadership role.”

We note three things about this report. Firstly, some similarities. Our research also showed significant problems with late information, declining levels of trust in the system but greater levels of local trust. Secondly, the differences are important reminders that school leaders’ experiences vary over time, but also in different places. When we compare our data with this Australian study, we are struck by how much more leaders in England appear to be impacted by events and demands. Thirdly, in research terms, we can see the value of having stable longitudinal data which shows how workload and wellbeing change over time, not only in response to external events, but also to policy changes.

We are monitoring other international research and are compiling a list of relevant studies. We hope our study will contribute to national understandings of the impact of the pandemic on school leaders and their work, as well as this wider international picture.

Photo by Mika Baumeister on Unsplash