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Debate: Leading the way?

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By John CoeInformation Officer for the National Association for Primary Education

Why are teachers choosing to stay in the classroom, and not putting themselves forward as potential leaders?

John Coe

There I was, a young (ish) NQT, working with my very first class, when the door opened and in came a slightly uneasy headteacher. ‘There’s someone in my office to see you,’ he said. Intrigued, I went to his office. There, in a chair next to the desk, sat the local inspector who had come to see how I was settling in. We greeted each other and I looked for somewhere to sit. Well, there was only one other chair in the room and it was behind the Head’s desk, so I sat on it. ‘I see,’ said the inspector with a somewhat steely look, ‘You take the seat of authority.’

Authority. I experienced this for real, a few years later, when I got my first headship. Of all the jobs I’ve done in primary education, I can say, unequivocally, that headship has been the most authoritative of all. Authoritative in the sense that one’s actions could change things. In primary schools, children come first, teachers second and the authorities a poor third.

Times have changed

Of course, things have changed quite massively since I worked as a Head. Headship has been in the eye of the storm as successive governments have legislated to tighten their grip on what children should be taught, how it should be taught and for how long. Bureaucracy has grown exponentially and computerisation has worsened, rather than lightened, the burden. The other day, I visited a Head who looked rather frazzled, as he explained that he had spent the two previous days preparing for a health and safety inspection. This was a Head appointed some years ago because he was known as an inspiring teacher. Now, as a Head faced by the apparently insatiable demands of both Government and local authority, he seldom worked alongside children. Indeed, to get involved with teaching and learning he has been reduced to making appointments to visit his teachers.

Recruitment concerns

This is not just me falling into a trap of looking nostalgically back to a golden time, but the primary profession itself is beginning to show a deep concern about modern headship. In many communities up and down the country, it is becoming nearly impossible to recruit headteachers. The one in ten of us who must come forward to lead, are too often staying in the classroom where helping children to grow, learn and be happy is still the prime task. In London, parts of the Midlands and the South-East, you’re lucky to get three applicants for a headship. Three-quarters of primary schools report having teachers who have all the qualities to become Heads – yet have no wish to do so. Leading a primary school could still be the best job in education but Government, both nationally and locally, must take a hard look at what they are demanding of headteachers.

I’ll sum up the way forward for them. Start trusting Heads and the staff they lead. Stop trying to micro-manage everything. Trust Heads to take initiatives and to take decisions. Recognise that bureaucracy damages education. Then, teachers with stars in their eyes will come forward and everyone will benefit.