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.

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

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