Resignations and retirement: A looming leadership crisis?

Written by: Suzanne O'Connell | Published:
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There are real fears that the added pressure of Covid-19 will drive many more headteachers to quit. Suzanne O’Connell looks at the barriers we face to headteacher retention and recruitment

Clare was head of school at a primary on the outskirts of London. Before the pandemic she was at the point of applying to be headteacher. Now, she has opted to return to classroom teaching and has abandoned any ideas of pursuing a school leader role.

“I have a young family and I was finding it exhausting,” she explained. “I felt like I was running everywhere, it was non-stop, every day. I could see the stress that the executive headteacher was under and decided that I didn’t want that responsibility and the continued anxiety that it causes.”

Gary was executive headteacher of two schools. Although he is eligible for retirement, he says events of the past few years have pushed him into taking the decision to stand down earlier than he wanted to: “It is cumulative. Although the experience of being a headteacher is fantastic and enjoyable, it’s the amount of responsibility you carry. Also, school dominates your life and I think we’ve all taken stock of priorities over the last year or so. There’s a lot of satisfaction but there’s also a lot of strain.”

Anthony David, executive head at St Paul’s CE Primary School and Monken Hadley CE Primary School in north London, is still in post but has serious concerns about the trend among his peers and agrees that colleagues are “choosing to retire earlier than they might have”.

Evidence of a growing problem

There are clear concerns about leadership supply. In 2017, research (Lynch et al, 2017) warned that retention rates were getting worse – falling from 94 per cent in 2012 to 92 per cent in 2015.

This has been driven by an increase in the number of primary headteachers leaving the profession before retirement age each year, from 334 in 2012 to 766 in 2015.

Meanwhile, more recent evidence from Professor John Howson (2021) shows that 1,497 primary school headteacher vacancies were advertised in 2019/20 (compared to 387 in secondary schools) with 28 per cent of them having to be re-advertised.

Writing in January, Prof Howson said: “Will that pattern be replicated this year? Will headteachers and especially headteachers in primary schools faced with more problems than normal and lacking the level of administrative support that their secondary school colleagues enjoy just decide enough is enough and take early retirement? Will the pay freeze make matters worse?”

In March, the National Association of Head Teachers published its own research into a looming leadership supply crisis (NAHT, 2021).

The findings are based on a survey of more than 2,000 school leaders – the majority of whom are from primary schools – conducted in autumn 2020. They suggest that a lack of support during the pandemic, the erosion of leaders’ real-terms pay, and high workload are three key barriers to retention. The report finds that:

  • Forty-seven per cent of the respondents are now less likely to stay in leadership for as long as they had planned.
  • Forty-six per cent of assistant and deputy heads do not aspire to headship.
  • Only 47 per cent of headteachers would recommend leadership as a career goal.

The NAHT’s findings show that school leaders have suffered during the pandemic from both extreme workload and increased worry with a consequent impact on their leisure time, wellbeing and their physical and mental health.

Assistant head and deputy headteachers continue to balance a number of different roles, which add to their difficulties, including class teaching, other roles such as designated safeguarding lead, and subject lead responsibilities.

Of those not wishing to apply for a headteacher position, 75 per cent referred to concerns about work/life balance and 60 per cent to their own personal wellbeing.

Paul Whiteman, the NAHT’s general secretary, said: “The lack of support for school leaders throughout the pandemic now risks an exodus of leaders from the profession. The government’s long-standing complacency on leaders’ workload and wellbeing has been laid bare and compounded by cut salaries in real-terms. The government must act urgently to make school leadership an attractive proposition for teaching professionals.”

Prof Howson’s analysis adds: “The current age profile of the teaching profession should be favourable to the appointment of senior leaders but, as this blog has pointed out in the past, there may not be enough deputy heads in the primary sector with sufficient experience to want to move onto headship at the present time.”

Work/life balance

For Clare, having insufficient time for her toddler was making her feel not only exhausted but guilty too: “I would get home and was rushing her to bed so that I could continue with my work and open up emails. In the end, I thought this is no good. I was spending so much time making arrangements for other people’s children and not spending enough time with my own.”

The NAHT report found that a majority of the respondents were working early mornings, in the evenings and at weekends regularly. The result for many, the survey finds, has been lower quality sleep, less time with family and friends, less time for exercise, and a negative impact on mental and physical health.

Gary expresses similar concerns about school dominating his life: “My wife encouraged me to take stock and helped me in the decision to retire now rather than later.”

As an executive head of two schools, each having a very effective head of school, he had expected the transition to be straight-forward. However, the process proved to be far more challenging than anticipated and these additional pressures reinforced his decision to retire.

The pandemic might not have been the sole cause of Gary leaving the profession, but it has certainly added to the complexity and pressure of the senior leadership role – a complexity that has tipped the balance for many.

The pressure (and consequences) of Covid leadership

Working from home might have had some benefits but Clare soon felt like she could never shut off: “I was constantly worried about opening emails. What would it contain? I was getting anxious about it and by Christmas it was really getting me down.

“There was no opportunity either to simply do what you’d done before. Every event, every activity had to be rethought, rearranged and renegotiated and there was always someone who didn’t like what you’d decided.”

Frequently changing government guidance was one major issue flagged by many headteachers. Indeed, in the NAHT survey, 72 per cent cited ever-changing pandemic guidance as the biggest challenge of the last year.

Decisions are made, arrangements set and then an often last-minute change in direction from Westminster throws everything into chaos. It didn’t help that the constant changes to guidance last year were often published late at night or – on one infamous occasion – just before a Bank holiday weekend.

For Clare, this hit morale hard: “We were taking the temperatures of children and then told to stop doing that, parents were then asking why we had stopped. We’d say because we were told to but they weren’t always happy with that.

“The same happened with booking a residential at the end of the year. Parents put a lot of pressure on us in terms of what we were doing or not doing – you just couldn’t win.”

For Gary, this central diktat environment is one of the factors that made him think twice about extending his career: “There is always uncertainty in relation to the preferences of the next education secretary. Everyone wants to make their mark and we’re left constantly having to adapt to the changes that they introduce. Professionals should be listened to more than they are.”

Covering staff, often at the last minute, has also weighed heavily on senior leaders during the pandemic. Gary continued: “I feel that there has been a lack of consideration for the welfare of teachers in general and school leaders in particular.

“A lack of regard or public recognition for the wellbeing of staff was particularly obvious on the return of all pupils to school. Managing the anxieties of adults working in schools along with concerned parents has been very challenging.”

The impact is clear to see. The NAHT research finds that 70 per cent of the respondents are less satisfied in their role than before the pandemic; 55 per cent report working between six and 15 hours a week more because of Covid. The report states: “Challenging, exhausting, stressful – these are the top three words school leaders used to describe their experience of the last year.”


Of course, any discussion with those stepping back from the profession inevitably touches upon money: “Funding cuts have meant that the capacity to share the load between leaders and teachers has been reduced,” Gary explained.

“If a teacher is off sick, how do we cover it? It’s like wading through treacle, just keeping the school running has been hard work.”

The situation has not been helped by what many saw as an inadequate settlement in the recent Spending Review.

“We need real-terms investment,” Mr David added, “if not there will be ramifications for decades. It wouldn’t take that much – school leaders are resourceful, but we need something.”

There is particular concern that as Ofsted resumes inspections, schools will find it increasingly difficult to provide the interventions and resources that are needed for students to “catch-up” and recover from the learning losses they may have experienced during lockdown.


The pressures of extreme accountability continue to weigh heavily on senior leaders too.

“It’s a welcome change to see that Ofsted is recognising the importance of the breadth and depth of the curriculum in our primary schools,” Gary told me, “however it’s also important to acknowledge the fact that for many years the inspection framework focused heavily on narrower outcomes.

“Therefore Ofsted also has to bear some responsibility for the fact that schools have paid too much attention to preparing children for national testing often at the expense of a well-rounded educational experience.”

Mr David points out that we are now into our third year of disrupted statistics: “The Ofsted inspection framework is out-of-date,” he explained.

None of the school leaders asked would prefer there to be no accountability but its nature and impact needs to be reviewed, they say.

Mr David, for example, says that while SIAMS (Statutory Inspection of Anglican and Methodist Schools) has completely reviewed its inspection model, Ofsted has not. He added: “There is more recognition from SIAMS of the impact of the virus and how you have managed to weather it.”


The Spending Review may have removed the pay freeze for teaching staff, but as Mr Whiteman pointed out: “We have seen real-terms pay cuts for teachers of up to eight per cent (in the last decade). This is contrast to 7.5 per cent real-terms growth in economy wide average earnings.”

These real-term cuts have affected leadership pay too. Not only this, but the gap between the highest teacher salaries and the lowest leadership salaries has shrunk, perhaps making many think twice

NAHT analysis shows that in 2019/20 the median pay for school leaders in state-funded nursery and primary schools was £49,791. However, the differential between leadership pay and that of the most highly paid teaching roles has been eroded from 18.7 per cent in 2010 to 14.2 per cent in 2020 (£36,961 compared to £42,195 for posts outside London).

In its report, the NAHT found that 40 per cent of assistant or deputy heads said pay was a barrier to promotion.

A lack of recognition

A lack of appreciation from politicians and the general public has proved to be the final nail in the coffin for many. The restrictions of the last year have perhaps led parents to take out some of their frustration on schools and their staff. School leaders are often the most accessible authority figure and can take the brunt when families are under pressure. Clare’s message is simple: “Just somebody saying ‘thank you’ would be appreciated. Otherwise you start to feel: what am I doing it all for?”

The government must act

Back at the NAHT, Mr Whiteman says that despite the many pressures they have faced this year, school leaders have “stuck to their task”.

He continued: “Up until now the government has not really had to face the consequences of its lack of support for leaders during the pandemic. But unless we see some movement on the areas we’re highlighting (in our survey), the school leadership supply pipeline is going to run dry.”

The NAHT recommends that to address these issues “lateral accountability” should be introduced in order to reduce high-stakes inspection. It wants to see greater independence and autonomy to allow school leaders to respond to their local context rather than Whitehall diktat.

For Mr David, we are on the verge of the situation becoming a crisis: “The problem is that there are not enough early career teachers. We’re recycling staff at the moment and there are not enough coming in. The situation can only get worse.

“Why would you become an early career teacher in the first place? With your first degree, you could earn a lot more elsewhere and it’s now a climate with many jobs. Who would want to go into this profession at the moment?”

  • Suzanne O’Connell is a freelance education writer and a former primary school headteacher.

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