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IT'S TIME TO RETURN SELF-CONFIDENCE TO THE TEACHING PROFESSION We need a a culture change, not window-dressing, to tackle the headteacher crisis

By 29 January 2012No Comments

Fiona Hyslop recently announced a major research programme into the recruitment and retention of headteachers.
The first baby boom teachers, born in the late 40s and early 50s, were recruited in the late 60s and early 70s.  They taught the last of the baby boom pupils.  Now they are retiring.  That’s why the present dearth of applicants for headteacher posts is a crisis.
The crisis however is not just about numbers.  It’s about quality.
After the tragic death of Irene Hogg, the pressures on school leaders has become a public issue.  Neil McGowan, Rector of Larbert High School described a recent, highly positive, HMIe inspection of his school as “brutal”.  AcrossScotland, several headteachers have been moved or retired after less than successful inspections.
Krystin Clyne, headteacher of Kaimes School in Edinburgh, serving young people with social communication difficulties, many on the autistic spectrum, retired a year after Kaimes was inspected.  Again, this was an overwhelmingly positive inspection but one which “knocked the stuffing out of us all”, in her words.
She had to support staff affected by the intensity of the inspection process.  They then experienced a report which underplayed many of the positives which had been transmitted verbally to her and to staff.
The Scottish Government has also announced that HMIE has been developing a new approach to school inspections.  The shorter more proportionate inspections aim to reduce the burden and bureaucracy on schools.  Teachers are asking however whether shorter means more humane.  Is this a genuine change of culture or merely a reduction in time-scales?
Increasingly, the opportunity to learn from experienced is disappearing as the pool of long-serving headteachers empties.  InEdinburghthe longest serving secondary head has served twelve years.  Ten years ago several heads had between fifteen and twenty years service.  Seven out of twenty threeEdinburghsecondaries have acting Headteachers.  In another authority, four out of eight secondary headteachers have, in the last four years, left their posts before reaching retrial age.  Dedicated educational leaders are increasingly sceptical about the value of working in a pressurised, bureaucratic system.
Jack Hamilton, Headteacher at Boroughmuir and chairperson of the Edinburgh Secondary Headteachers, believes the system makes headteachers accountable for everything, from health and safety to finance to attainment and Deputes are increasingly unwilling to put themselves forward for a role which is so technical.  There may well be a subsequent drop in the quality of those who get through.
This view was echoed at the recent International Summer School on School Leadership by Alma Harris of London University’s Institute of Education.  “It’s an issue of accountability and pressure.  Deputes are not applying because they see what the job entails.  Leadership is not competency based.  It’s not a list of skills.”
The competence-based selection system however, also rewards mediocrity.  Those who can tick the boxes are well placed for promotion.  Interview panels, in their brief interrogation, see little of the crucial people skills. These can’t anyway be easily measured in interviews.  The system recruits many able headteachers but many of these become worn down by the pressures.  Heads of limited skills however, also emerge through a flawed selection process.  They have a debilitating effect on their deputes and other dedicated staff.  Their example deters others from coming forward.  They can create organisational paralysis in schools..
At least one Scottish authority uses sub-panels of pupils and of school staff (teaching and non-teaching) as part of the headteacher selection process.  That would be a step forward.  Existing headteachers also need to make a stand.  They require to model leadership by challenging risk-averse bureaucracies, a too-powerful HMIe and tick-box outlooks.  They need to take personal risks and put ambition for their schools and pupils before personal ambition.  The last things Scottish schools require are yes-men (or yes-women) at their helms.
The crisis is not just about headteacher recruitment.  It’s about returning pride and self-confidence to the teaching profession.  If the government is committed to high quality leadership in schools, it needs to end the micro-management of our schools.  Schools and teachers need to be trusted to be responsible.  It’s time to review the many layers of government which impact on schools.  Do we need HMIs and local authority Quality Improvement Officers?  Do we need a Scottish Government and a local authority overview?
The best of the present generation of school leaders must offer the experiences (rather than the courses and qualifications) to support a new generation of teachers committed to clear values, to schools on a human scale and to caring for all those who operate within them.  If they are not to shun promoted posts, we need to talent-spot tomorrow’s leaders today and challenge and nurture their values and personal qualities as much as their educational knowledge and technical skills.
This article first appeared in The Herald on 9 September 2008

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