Leadership succession: Give us a ‘Heads Up’

Written by: Heath Monk | Published:
A future leader? A scene from the Future Leaders’ campaign video, which is part of its Heads Up report and campaign aimed at encouraging more teachers to aspire to headship

A report from the Future Leaders Trust has identified some of the key barriers that are stopping talented leaders from stepping up to headship, including the poor reputation of the role. Heath Monk issues a call to action

Inspiring and effective school leaders are vital in ensuring that children from poorer backgrounds get a great education. But, as The Future Leaders Trust’s recent report – entitled Heads Up – shows, there is a growing shortage of headteachers, and it is our students who suffer.

There are two key issues: the insufficient supply of senior leaders willing to become headteachers, and the negative view of headship that has developed.

It is true that being a headteacher is challenging – but so is being the CEO of a business or taking on any role with significant responsibility. Few of these jobs receive the barrage of bad press that headship faces.

The often-negative attitude of the press and the teaching profession towards headship has contributed to the fact that too many headteacher vacancies go unfilled for too long through lack of appropriate applicants. If our children are to succeed we need more people to be willing to take on the responsibility of leadership.

Headship is hard because ensuring every child gets a great education is complex and demanding, but it is tremendously rewarding to give children the tools that will allow them to grow into happy and independent adults.

Most importantly, headship is a job that can be learned by developing the necessary skills. With the right leadership competencies in place, heads can lead far more effectively and create the positive impact they are aiming for.

The shortage is affecting each phase in slightly different ways. In primary, there are far more schools and therefore demand for headteachers is numerically higher: we need more primary headteachers than we do in secondary.

This greater demand is made more complex by the path of career progression in primary schools. When I talk to primary heads and leaders, it is clear that the distinction between teachers and leaders is less clear than in secondary. Primary teachers may find themselves leading whole-school projects within a year or two of training. This is excellent experience but means primaries can have a horizontal structure, making the path to headship less clear.

If the number of headship vacancies continues to rise – and evidence points to an even steeper increase over the next few years – it will be the challenging schools and our most disadvantaged students who will suffer most. As an organisation dedicated to the next generation of school leaders, the Future Leaders Trust wants to lead the way in changing how people think about headship.

Our report brings together recent surveys and research on headteacher recruitment, expert commentary from figures across the education sector, and first-hand accounts from headteachers who have taken up headships in challenging schools and are making a difference in their students’ lives.

Leaders from across education have added their voices to our call for a change in the public perception of headship, and for a sector-wide effort to encourage the next generation of school leaders to step up. Contributors include chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw, school recruitment trend expert Professor John Howson, and chief executive of the National Governors’ Association, Emma Knights.

One part of the solution is for existing heads to spot potential leaders in their schools and inspire them about headship.

Again, this seems to have a particular pertinence in primary schools. Many of the primary heads that I know say they did not believe they could be good headteachers until someone tapped them on the shoulder and said: “You should apply for that.”

Perhaps that’s due to the dominant character types of those who want to work in primary or a cultural consequence of the flat structure but, whatever the cause, many great primary heads only stepped up after being inspired and encouraged to apply.

This is not a universal truth, but if we need more headteachers, then we need to act effectively in order to find the next generation. If every head looks for colleagues who show leadership potential, and inspires and develops them to pursue a path to headship, we will be heading in the right direction to ensure that no child goes to a school without a great headteacher.

Do you know a senior leader who could make a great headteacher? If so, point them in our direction. Our programmes help participants develop the motivation, tools and opportunities to lead challenging schools and give children the great education they deserve. All we need from you is a “heads up”.

  • Heath Monk is the CEO of the Future Leaders Trust, a charity offering leadership development for aspiring headteachers of challenging schools.

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