Who wants to be a headteacher?

Written by: Diana Ohene-Darko | Published:
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The profession is on its knees after two years of working on the front-line of the pandemic. And unless action is taken on workload and wellbeing, the supply of school leaders risks running dry, says Diana Ohene-Darko

With the pandemic still dominating our professional lives as school leaders, we remain in unprecedented and unparalleled times.

However, while most other professions can do the job they have been trained for, my colleagues and I are working against a backdrop of a lack of professional agency, autonomy, and independence.

We have kept education going for our children and communities – often despite the onslaught of last-minute updates to key guidance delivered by ministers on a Sunday evening, or indeed the now infamous spring term 2021 when we opened our doors only to be told after just one day that we were to shut them once again to a majority of pupils. And it is no understatement to say that given the vague nature of much of the guidance, we have often been operating on our own, making incredibly difficult decisions day-in, day-out.

But instead of being hailed as heroes for working on the front-line during the pandemic, it is us who are heralded as incompetent, inconsistent and inept.

Up until recently, I would have confidently called myself an “aspiring head” – someone who wanted to make a difference more widely for the benefit of pupils, staff and the wider community, to take on that role of responsibility and accountability in leadership.

However, in this regard, I now have to reflect.

In fact, a recent survey from the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT, 2021) showed that more than half of those in assistant head or deputy head positions do not aspire to headship. I am both of those and I am currently on the fence. I will tell you why…

Throughout the pandemic, our commitment has been tested to breaking point. Workload has soared to the point that our leaders are suffering with their own physical and mental wellbeing and many of us have had to seek support – and there is no shame in that. While we are trained to be educationalists, teachers at the core, we have fast become skilled in wearing so many other “hats”.

Not only have we led our schools, but we have also been our own healthcare professionals, social workers, nurses or doctors, counsellors, confidantes, spiritual guides or advisors, computing technicians and so much more.

Our profession is indeed a vocation. We are here because we want to be, because we have an innate desire to make a difference to the children, staff and communities we serve.

However, in the NAHT survey, 87% of assistants and deputies said that concerns about personal wellbeing were the top deterrent to those aspiring to leadership or headship roles. Just think about that for a moment.

Self-care is vital – do you “CARE” for yourself on a daily basis? By which I am referring to “Compassion, Affirmations, Reflection or Reading, Exercise”.

School leaders are telling us in the thousands that considering the size of their professional “to-do” list, personal wellbeing too often ends up coming last.

I will give you an example of a typical day in recent times, in brief:

The alarm goes at 6am. Before 7:15am staffing Whatsapp groups are already going 10 to the dozen with messages of who is in, who is out and how as a senior leadership team we can cover absences (in the absence of supply teachers). The Hokey Cokey springs to mind!

The day then begins with ensuring we know the most up-to-date guidance and procedures, checking the number of Covid cases, and seeing whether a phone call to public health is needed.

This comes alongside staff needing to see you either for personal or professional reasons, checking again cover for classes, being out on the gate, appeasing tricky parents, preparing relevant documents for predicted Ofsted inspection, keeping on top of daily and weekly administrative tasks, hopefully trying to find time for teaching, learning and the curriculum, trying to remember to drink water, go to the toilet and eat – which may only be a possibility!

And the day does not end there. After hours, there will be meetings – staff meetings, senior leader meetings, governor meetings and board meetings – take your pick. Not to mention the everyday tasks of cooking, cleaning and running a household, reading, playing or spending time with dependants, spending time with pets, and trying to fit in some “me” time. Remember that self-care we mentioned earlier? What self-care?

The greatest barrier to wellbeing is workload. If this was addressed, then leadership might be more attractive to our middle leaders coming through the ranks.

How can school leaders possibly be expected to perform at their optimum when the odds are against them before they have even left the house? Not only do they have the care of their pupils, staff and communities to consider, but they also have their own families and self-care to consider so that they remain able to serve and serve well.

We have shown magnanimous and heart-felt strength in continuing to provide a first-rate education during the pandemic, but we need everyone to acknowledge that wellbeing is crucial to a profession that is on its knees.

Educating tomorrow’s future is paramount in securing the society we want to see and the society we want to be. In order to do this, we need to see the government held more accountable for education professionals whose wellbeing has suffered as a direct result of their work and workload.

  • Diana Ohene-Darko is an assistant headteacher and acting deputy headteacher at two London primary schools, and a national executive committee member for the National Association of Head Teachers. This article is based on an address Diana gave during an NAHT briefing event for MPs held in the Houses of Parliament in February 2022.

Further information & resources

NAHT: Fixing the leadership crisis: Time for change, December 2021: www.naht.org.uk/FixingTheLeadershipCrisis

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