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Expert opinion from IOE, UCL's Faculty of Education and Society


Risky business: Should headship in challenging schools come with a career warning?

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 18 March 2013

Karen Edge
The Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) hosted their annual conference in London at the weekend. General Secretary Brian Lightman’s address has set the Internet abuzz with articles, tweets, retweets and blogs. Hundreds of individuals and media outlets have weighed in, including the BBC, Daily Mail and the Independent, to name but a few!
In his speech, Lightman explicitly stated what we have been hearing in whispers amongst our London-based school leader research participants. The message? Taking on headship of a challenging school can become a long-term career risk. Lightman’s tale of an ASCL member’s experience would cause a ripple of worry for even the most experienced of leaders.
In the words of one ASCL member, it can be potential “career suicide”. These sentiments capture a growing swell of concern that even leaders with stellar career histories and successful turnaround records may be falling prey to career-ending OFSTED judgements.
Lightman has linked the potential career risk to two different yet overlapping issues. First, the alarming and perhaps impossible pace at which school turnaround can be expected to take place. Second, as a result, good headteachers could be scarred by less than glowing Ofsted reports, even in cases where impressive and meaningful improvements have been made. As previous Ofsted reports, in the hands of governing bodies, may make or break a leader’s ability to get their next post, many a potential headship candidate may be pausing to reflect on their next steps.
Our ESRC-funded study of Generation X school leaders offers a sneak peek at the experience of under-40-year-old deputies and headteachers in London, New York and Toronto. Sadly, our young London-based leaders are often not immune to the aforementioned worries.
During our interviews, we have heard rumblings of a similar nature. As our participants discuss their strategies for choosing their early leadership posts, they are mindful of the influence their first and second headships will carry, as they will “make or break your career”. Our young leaders appear acutely aware of what can affect career longevity. In the words of one participant, a very able, ambitious and dedicated young leader: “You are only as good as your last Ofsted. So why take the risk?”
If our youngest and often most resilient leaders, at the beginning of their careers, are seriously considering the long term implications of taking up posts in challenging schools, what will the future look like? What are the potential implications for recruitment and retention of the leaders we need to improve schools in all circumstances?
As a parent and education reform scholar, I want all schools to be good schools – if not better. However, I am mindful that sustainable and system-wide improvement takes time and commitment. As we look forward, supporting the growth and development of schools across London and the UK will also require a cadre of leaders and teachers who are invested in the system and their professional careers over the long haul.
We hope that Lightman’s comments have created a sense of urgency amongst policy and practice leaders to begin a very public discussion of the “unrealistic” pressure being placed on headteachers to create instantaneous improvements at breakneck speed. Better yet, a public discussion of the very real implications for leaders, teachers and students of short term, standards driven changes that may not be sustainable in the long run.
Our initial thought: Fasten your seatbelts folks! We may be in for a bumpier leadership recruitment and retention ride than we anticipated.