Schools in England are struggling to recruit headteachers, with posts in deprived areas particularly hard to fill and attitudes towards headship roles growing increasingly negative, according to a report. While there are fewer applications for headships across the country, leadership jobs in challenging schools in remote and deprived areas serving disadvantaged pupils are the most difficult to fill.
Some schools looking for new heads have to advertise repeatedly in order to fill the posts. High levels of stress and workload associated with school accountability measures are among the reasons why posts are hard to fill, while taking on a challenging school with a poor Ofsted rating is seen as a career risk.
The report, called Heads Up: Meeting the Challenges of Headteacher Recruitment, published on Tuesday by the Future Leaders Trust, says perceptions of the role of headteacher must change if the national shortage is to be addressed. It calls for a new strategy to find more recruits, urging serving headteachers to identify colleagues with the potential to lead schools and to encourage them to develop their skills.
The chief inspector of schools and former head Sir Michael Wilshaw, writing in the report, said it was incumbent on all leaders to plan for succession. “Heads must encourage their leadership teams to develop, whether through in-school opportunities or external programmes.”
According to a recent survey of school governors by the National Governors’ Association, 43% of respondents who recruited senior staff in 2015 said it had been difficult to find good candidates. Three out of 10 headteachers (28%) who took part in another survey said they planned to leave headship within five years.
Other research suggests that positive attitudes towards headship are declining. A 2015 survey of school leaders by The Key, a national information service for school leaders, found that 86% of respondents believed headship was less attractive than it was five years ago.
According to analysis in 2013 by Education Data Surveys, more than one in four primary schools advertising for a new head failed to recruit in two months and had to re-advertise – an 11-point increase compared with the same period in 2012.
Peter Hyman, executive head of School 21 in east London and a former adviser to Tony Blair, has recently filled a vacancy for head of primary at his school for 4-18-year-olds, but only after several rounds of advertising, interviews and the use of a headhunter. “It was hard to find the right person,” said Hyman. “A lot of colleagues are finding that. You hear people saying they’ve only had two applications for a headship post.
“Increasingly, the step up from deputy to head is one some people don’t want to make. The pressures are well known. The exam system is such a constraining pressure ... then there’s the spectre of Ofsted.
“But I also think it’s one of the most exciting times for headship because of the variety of schools. You can set up your own school; there are chains of schools doing very exciting things. This is a golden age for seizing the opportunity to shape what is going on in the class room.”
Prof John Howson, an expert in school recruitment who has been tracking the turnover in headteachers since the 1980s, said: “Rarely since then has there been as much concern over finding the next generation of school leaders as there is now. Leading a school will only become an attractive career option again once it is accepted that leaders themselves need support and recognition for their work.”
The Future Leaders Trust is a leadership development programme aimed at recruiting talented headteachers to challenging primary and secondary schools to improve outcomes for disadvantaged pupils. Heath Monk, the trust’s chief executive, said: “Fewer people are applying to become heads and that means even fewer people are applying to lead schools that serve our most disadvantaged students.
“Without effective and inspiring leadership these children are losing out on the education they need. The talent is out there but many people need encouragement to understand they can step up. The solution is for existing heads to spot potential leaders in their schools and inspire them about headship.”
The report attempts to redress the negative perceptions of the role with stories from serving headteachers that describe what they love about the job. One of those quoted is Rimah Aasim, headteacher of Worth Valley primary school, Bradford.
She said: “I’ve wanted to become a headteacher since the age of six. Before taking up my post quite a few people told me that headship can be a lonely place. This worried me a little but I decided to carry on because headship had always been my ultimate goal.
“Being a headteacher is the best job in the world for me. It is a huge but rewarding role. Working in challenging schools in disadvantaged areas is tough but all children deserve an education no matter where they come from, and it is our duty to provide it.”
A spokeman for the Department of Education said: “High-quality school leaders are essential in delivering our vision of educational excellence everywhere. We are making good progress towards this goal, with Ofsted rating 85% of schools as good or outstanding for leadership and management, as well as a headteacher vacancy rate of just 0.2%, but we are not complacent.
“Our Talented Leaders initiative is placing outstanding headteachers into struggling schools, and the National Teaching Service will place 1,500 teachers and middle leaders in underperforming schools by 2020.”