An investigation by The Times has confirmed that schools are finding it increasingly difficult to retain and to recruit head teachers. Eleven per cent of heads left their posts in 2014-15. While many simply moved school or retired, a growing number are resigning. The shortfall is becoming significant.
According to the union of which I was formerly a member, the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT), we face a current deficit of around 2000 to 3000 schools leaders – around 5 per cent of what our school system requires. In addition, there is the inevitable but unreported consequence that too many ‘second-rate’ applicants have been, and are being, appointed to ‘plug’ the vacancy gaps.
School governors see having someone in place as better than the alternative. This may be understandable but it delivers a potentially fatal blow to the quality of education on offer in many schools. It, also, undermines any real prospect of our education system ever matching the best around the world. The quality of school leadership really does matter that much.
Sir Michael Wilshaw, the outgoing chief inspector, was right to suggest as much when he addressed a Sutton Trust conference in 2016: "We need head teachers in our secondary schools that are going to be really transformative leaders, and we have not got enough of them. We need battlers, we need bruisers, we need battle-axes who are going to fight the good fight and are absolutely determined to get high standards. We have got too many appeasers in our secondary schools who are prepared to put up with mediocrity."
Governments over the years have been reluctant to face up to the issue of teacher quality, let alone the quality of head teachers. It is, however, the key to everything, as the best education systems around the world make clear.
Where do we go from here? First of all, we must attract more of the brightest and the best graduates into teaching. We need to create a pool of talent from which to recruit future leaders.
Secondly, we need to redress the gender imbalance within the profession. Three out of four teachers are female and in primary schools it is close to nine out of ten. Male role models are important for children and, since men are twice as likely as women to seek headships, we need more men in schools if we are ever to find sufficient teachers with the desire and ability to become outstanding school leaders.
Thirdly, we need to make teaching a more attractive career choice by eradicating the infestation of political correctness and attendant bureaucracy that plagues our classrooms. Schools should not be knowledge-lite agencies for indoctrinating children in fashionable, and often highly politicised, social ideologies. They should, principally, be about learning, alongside the development of potential in sport and the arts. Increasingly, these days, however, the profession has become more focused on social work than on teaching. This is a huge ‘turn-off’ for many prospective recruits, especially male recruits, it seems.
Fourthly, we need to restore the whole-class teaching methods that underpin the success of schools in the Asia-Pacific region and that we ditched long ago. They are not only more successful than ‘child-centred’ methods in allowing pupils to learn, they are, also, much less stressful for teachers. An added bonus is that they allow classes to be a bit larger. Having slightly larger classes would reduce our teacher shortage and allow teachers and head teachers to be paid more. Because it necessitates a teaching method that works it would, also, raise standards. A win, win, situation!
If we wish to attract the most talented into teaching in general, and into headship, in particular, we need to make the job more attractive. In particular, it needs to be attractive to more men since they constitute half of the potential recruits and, at least, half the talent. The ‘solution’ is not so hard to work out and it is to be hoped that, one day, a UK government may find it.