Facing up to our challenges as primary school leaders

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Optimistic: Andy Mellor, president of the National Association of Head Teachers and headteacher of St Nicholas CE Primary School in Blackpool

The challenges facing schools are varied, including recruitment, funding and impending inspection reform. Andy Mellor considers these issues, but also calls on colleagues to remain optimistic

Optimism is a key component in a school leader’s toolbox. Most school leaders that I meet are optimists. It’s why we do the job.

The job also brings with it plenty of challenges and headaches, but sometimes it is all too easy to look at education through a glass, darkly. It is important to remember just how much inspirational work goes on in our schools.

This work is even more remarkable because it is commonplace. Despite the familiar obstructions, inspiration is the norm, not the exception.

This is a sentiment echoed by Damian Hinds. He has penned an editorial for the National Association of Head Teachers’ magazine, Leadership Focus, which has just landed on members’ doormats. In it, he talks about the “moments of illumination” that happen for staff and pupils. I know what he means.

He also proudly talks about how “standards are shooting up in our schools”. I’d agree with him there, too. But just as there’s plenty of illumination in the classroom, there’s plenty of frustration too. I’m often left feeling that we could go much further and much faster if some of the shackles were removed.

A lack of funding continues to be the biggest barrier to success. Our campaigning has meant that the view that education spending is adequate is now only shared by a minority of discredited renegades.

In Northern Ireland, NAHT continues to campaign on the devastating funding crisis that schools currently face. Without a functioning Stormont Assembly our officials have spoken at the on-going Parliamentary Inquiry by the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee to make the case for increased funding.

Now, the majority of a school’s budget is spent on people. That’s as it should be. Without great people around you, those “moments of illumination” just won’t happen.

Recruitment and retention have always been key parts of NAHT’s policy and research work. As we’ve said for some time, too few people are choosing teaching as a career and too many talented professionals are being driven out of the system prematurely.

The secretary of state shares our concerns. He said: “This is a tragic waste and it has to stop.”

At the turn of the year, the government produced its new Teacher Recruitment and Retention Strategy (see pages 4 & 24-25). We are particularly encouraged to see the development of the Early Career Framework (ECF). The first few years can often be challenging, so providing early support is essential if we are to avoid good, new people burning out.

Delivered well, the programme of mentoring and support that the government has announced should help provide the foundations for a long and successful career in teaching, but it must fully funded.

I couldn’t conclude without also mentioning the new Ofsted Education Inspection Framework (EIF). I would urge every school leader to read the draft carefully and respond to the consultation (see pages 1, 2 and 3).

Chief inspector Amanda Spielman tells me she has had overwhelmingly positive responses from school leaders, but that isn’t my experience.

Estyn, the school inspection authority in Wales, is under similar pressure to change. Professor Graham Donaldson’s review of Estyn has taken on board many of the conclusions and recommendations in NAHT’s Improving School Accountability report.

But in England it’s a different story. Ofsted has been clear that they will weigh the responses of individual school leaders just the same as the main one that NAHT sends in on behalf of our 29,000 members. So I would urge you to respond in your numbers as, being an optimist, I believe that the views of school leaders, if given in enough numbers, will be heard.

I am into my 16th year as a school leader. There have been plenty of ups and downs. I remember how hard it felt at the beginning. I know how hard it is now.

Our duty as leaders is to create the conditions in our schools that allow our colleagues and pupils their chance to succeed. With so much uncertainty around, the work we do in education has never been more vital. When so much is in a state of flux in pupils’ families and in the wider world, schools provide the stability that young people always need and often crave. We don’t need a government strategy to tell us how to do that. We’re optimists, after all.

  • Andy Mellor is president of the National Association of Head Teachers. He is headteacher of St Nicholas CE Primary School in Blackpool.

Further information

  • Teacher Recruitment and Retention Strategy, DfE, January 2019: http://bit.ly/2Tphgiw
  • Supporting Early Career Teachers (ECF), DfE, January 2019: http://bit.ly/2UpPaUL
  • Consultation: Education Inspection Framework 2019: Inspecting the substance of education, Ofsted, January 2019 (consultation closes April 5, 2019): http://bit.ly/2MrflYh
  • Education Inspection Framework: Overview of research, Ofsted, January 2019: http://bit.ly/2Vgzt2z

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