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.
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.
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.
During the summer term we surveyed almost 1500 school leaders in England about their experiences of the pandemic. Earlier posts reported leaders’ experiences of the pandemic, where they have gone for advice and what has helped them to cope. This post focuses on how the pandemic has impacted on leaders’ career decision making.
Which leaders are planning to leave the profession early?
Two fifths of leaders (40%) say they plan to leave the profession early, that is for reasons other than full retirement, within the next five years (Figure 1).
Figure 1 School leaders’ career intentions (n=1478)*
When these responses are broken down, we see that leaders who have been in the profession the longest (i.e. 26 years or more) are most likely to say they will leave early (Figure 2).
Figure 2: School leaders’ career intentions by length of time in profession (1-5 years n=22; 6-10 years n=57; 11-15 years n=141; 16-20 years n=241; 21-25 years n=372; 26-30 years n=339; 31+ years n=304)**
Leaders in executive headship (46%), headship (46%) and school business roles (39%) are significantly more likely to say they will leave early than either deputy (26%) or assistant heads (20%) (Figure 3).
Figure 3: School leaders’ career intentions by role (Executive Heads n=97; Headteachers/Principals n=907; Deputy Head n=188; Assistant Head n=116; School Business Leader n=95).
Finally, leaders in primary schools are significantly more likely to say they plan to leave early (46%) than those in secondaries (33%) or all-through schools (26%) (Figure 4).
Figure 4: School leaders’ career intentions by school phase (primary n=806, secondary n=500, all-through n=120)
What part has the pandemic played in leaders’ decision-making?
We asked respondents whether or not the pandemic had been a factor in their decision to either leave the profession early, or to remain. The vast majority of early ‘leavers’ said that the pandemic has been either the main or a contributing factor in their career decision.
The question gave three response options, as follows: i) The pandemic has not influenced my career plans; ii) The pandemic has been one influence on my career plans, alongside other factors; iii) The pandemic has been the main factor in me changing my career plans. The results are shown in Figure 5. They show that early ‘leavers’ are significantly more likely to say that the pandemic has been either the main or a contributing factor in their decision than ‘stayers’.
Figure 5: School leaders’ career intentions and how the pandemic has influenced this (n=1478).
Has leaders’ personal health impacted on their career decisions?
School leaders reported that their personal health was worse during the pandemic. Nearly nine in 10 (88%) respondents rated their health as either ‘good’ or ‘very good’ in ‘normal’ circumstances, but this declined to just over half (53%) during the pandemic.
We analysed this finding together with leaders’ career plans (shown above). This revealed a clear association between worse personal health and plans to leave the profession early (Figure 6).
Figure 6: School leaders’ career intentions by change in health score before vs during the pandemic (n=1478).
What, if anything, would persuade more leaders to stay?
Greater trust in the profession – by government – would make the greatest difference in persuading more leaders to stay in the profession for longer (Fig. 7), followed by actions to reduce pressure and workload, and enhanced funding and support for schools and school leaders.
Figure 7: School leaders’ views on factors that would persuade them to stay in the profession for longer (n=1478).
This post indicates the consequences – two in five leaders plan to leave the profession early, creating significant risks for school and system performance at a time when the system needs more expertise than ever to address urgent challenges around learning loss and educational inequality.
Of course, it is possible that some leaders who said they would leave when they completed the survey might since have changed their mind and decided to stay, but it would seem unwise to assume this. The results reported here therefore present a wake-up call to government and to school and trust governing bodies.
In the summer term we interviewed 58 headteachers who plan to leave or stay. We will be publishing these results later this term.
Notes on survey results:
Fig 1, in detail – we asked leaders to select the statement that best described their career intentions and plans, with eight possible statements in total (plus ‘Not sure/prefer not to say’ and ‘Other’). Three options involved staying in the profession (stay in current role for foreseeable future, apply for different role in current school/MAT in next year or two, apply for role in different school/MAT in next year or two), while a fourth option involved retirement at normal retirement age. Three options involved leaving the profession early (within the next year, three years or five years) while a fourth involved taking early retirement within five years. Figure 1 shows the results with the responses aggregated.
Fig 2 – Although a high proportion of new entrants (1-5 years) said they planned to leave early, the small size of this group [n=22] means the figures should be interpreted with caution.