'Until recently, I would have called myself an aspiring head'

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

A primary school deputy headteacher has delivered a stark and uncomfortable message to MPs about the growing hole in the headteacher pipeline.

Diana Ohene-Darko, an assistant headteacher and acting deputy headteacher at two London primary schools, told MPs that she used to be an “aspiring head”.

However, the 10-year real-terms pay freeze and the way the government has treated headteachers during the Covid-19 pandemic has led her to take stock.

She was speaking at a briefing event in Parliament organised by the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) on Wednesday (February 2).

Ms Ohene-Darko told MPs: “My colleagues and I are working against a backdrop of a lack of professional agency, autonomy and independence. Instead of being hailed as heroes for working on the frontline we have been unfairly criticised to hide government failure.

“Until recently, I would have confidently called myself an ‘aspiring head’, one 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. A decade-long, real-terms pay freeze, along with headteachers becoming scapegoats for government failures during the pandemic, has meant that school leaders are thinking twice about progressing all the way to headship – never mind staying in the profession at all – not least because when all is said and done, it is their head on the line.”

In December, an NAHT survey of 2,047 school leaders found that 53 per cent who were not currently a headteacher did not want to become one. This figure is up from 46 per cent in 2020 and 40 per cent in 2016. Crucially, the research found that the more experienced a teaching professional becomes, the less likely they are to want to take the final step to headship.

When asked to summarise their role as leaders in 2021, the three most common responses were: exhausting, challenging, stressful. The respondents said that keeping pace with government pandemic guidance has been the biggest driver of workload (74 per cent), while the public sector pay freeze, which was recently lifted by chancellor Rishi Sunak, has hit morale badly (83 per cent).

Concerns about personal wellbeing were recorded as the single biggest deterrent to school leadership (87 per cent of assistant and deputy heads and 86 per cent of middle leaders).

MPs of all hues attended the event and received a briefing on recent NAHT research into the pay, workload and wellbeing of school leaders in England.

Ms Ohene-Darko, who is also a NAHT national committee member, added: “Throughout the pandemic, vocational 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; many have had to seek wider support and there is no shame in that.

“It is time that our profession was given back the credibility it deserves, in line with other countries who have education on a pedestal. It is time that we were paid in line with inflation, year-on-year to reflect the continued and sustained hard work of our profession. It is time that we are remunerated for our tireless efforts in keeping education going for the last two years, despite several lockdowns, late guidance and the strain of doing our own track and trace.”

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the NAHT, said: “When we said school leadership supply is teetering on the brink of collapse, we meant it. Experienced teachers and leaders with decades of classroom and management experience do not view headship as an attractive, viable and sustainable career choice. Awareness of the spiralling mental health and wellbeing crisis among leaders, and failure to address falling real-terms pay has failed to provide incentive to step up and take on the responsibility of school leadership.

“The government urgently needs to listen to school leaders’ experiences and concerns. We thank those MPs who have attended our briefing event and urge them to use this information to push for change.”

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