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

Blog Editor, IOE Digital18 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.

Talkin’ ‘bout three generations: what does it mean for schools when Xs, Ys and Boomers mix?

Blog Editor, IOE Digital12 November 2012

Karen Edge
People from the same generation tend to have some characteristics in common and, as a result, generational differences influence the daily lives of the organisations they work in. However, within education, rarely has a generational lens been used to explore and support the three generations (3-Gen) of teachers and leaders working in our schools at the moment: Boomers (born 1945–65), Generation X (1965–1980) and Generation Y (1980–2000).
Our current ESRC-funded study is nested within our wider interest in the influence of generational behaviour and attitudinal patterns on school-level improvements in teaching and learning. It focuses our energies on learning more about the emerging cohort of Gen X school leaders in London, New York and Toronto.
To kick-start our 3-Gen musings, based on our own and the wider emerging evidence we introduce three generationally stereotypical and fictitious teachers and leaders. Without further ado, your 3-Gen trio: Ayesha, Mark and Barbara:
Generation Y: Ayesha, 24
Ayesha recently accepted her first permanent teaching post. She is optimistic, confident, social and street-smart. Motivated by a sense of civic duty, Ayesha and her peers are part of a diverse cohort with a commitment to, and expectation of, a diverse workforce. Professionally, Ayesha is self-directed, tech savvy, well-networked and connected. She is willing to commit to her school and is eager to get ahead, demonstrated by her constant desire for learning and expanded responsibility. At times, Ayesha is easily intimidated by colleagues. She likes structure and supervision in the form of personalised learning and mentoring opportunities. Ayesha and her Gen Y colleagues often thrive with robust orientation programme and large-group collaboration under strong supportive leaders.
Generation X: Mark, 37
Mark is a technoliterate deputy headteacher although he is now frequently out-techsavvied by his Gen Y colleagues. During his first six years of teaching, he taught in four different schools. Thankfully, he is comfortable with change! He is at ease with people from all backgrounds, is globally-minded and has travelled and studied abroad. While he is comfortable with, and even craves, collaboration, he is content working on his own and is self-reliant. His sense of fun and informal approach to relationships and work is palpable. For Mark, work is defined by task, not time and place. However, he holds his commitment to his partner and family close to heart and defends his work-life balance. Mark is a great colleague because he is adaptable, creative and unintimidated by authority. However, his independence has fostered what is perceived as a “less than ideal” set of people skills and his cynicism can often get in the way.
Boomer: Barbara, 55
Barbara is optimistic, personable and very much a relationship-oriented headteacher. At work she is a great team player who is eager to please her colleagues, keen to be involved in any cross-school initiatives and always willing to go the extra mile. Yet she is also keen to avoid conflict, sensitive to feedback and reluctant to challenge her peers. Her natural tendency to focus on process and to be weary of budget and accountability structures can be to the detriment of the end result within an accountability, outcomes-driven culture. Barbara can also be fairly judgmental of those with a different perspective to her own, and can sometimes stray into believing her way is the only way.
What we are calling “generational awareness” may provide leaders with another strategy for understanding how individuals approach their work, collaboration and work-life balance. As a starter for ten, we suggest the following questions for consideration:

  • Are there generational patterns at play within your school?
  • Do you make the most of generational patterns to bring about school-level change and improvement?
  • Do you need (or have) a different skill and strategy set to recruit, retain, motivate and support colleagues from each generation?

Our work to build on collective understanding of the implications of our 3-Gen schools continues and we encourage you to join the debate/discussion. Contact k.edge@ioe.ac.uk.

Generation X men and women: leading a school near you

Blog Editor, IOE Digital18 June 2012

Karen Edge
Global Cities are diverse, vibrant hubs of innovation. They create new norms. This idea of a roster of powerful cities influencing global culture, economics, politics and infrastructure has inspired an annual ranking of Global Cities This ranking doesn’t include education – but my research team and I think a list of Global Educational Cities has great potential.
Historically, international education policy and practice have been influenced by a just handful of cities. So, when we spotted a possible new trend in school leadership, we set out to investigate it in three places: New York, London and Toronto. If history plays out, the emerging patterns of leadership in these cities may well have important lessons for others around the world.
In 2008, we noticed a growing number of primary and secondary school leaders under 40 here in London. This cohort of younger leaders captured our interest. They marked the arrival of Generation X into top posts and a departure from the traditional Boomer-filled school leadership landscape. As leaders’ beliefs and practices are strongly influenced by the era in which they grew up, will this new generation of leaders inspire a shift in educational practice and innovation? Are they experiencing leadership differently than their predecessors?
To answer these questions, we have set out to learn more about Generation X leaders in three Global Educational Cities in our new ESRC-funded study.  However, the first question most people ask our team is, ‘Why Generation X leaders?’ Our answer is quite simple.
Born between 1960-1980, Generation X-ers are reported to be: techno-savvy, globally-minded, collaborative, pragmatic and interested in work-life balance. In addition, they have grown up being told they will have more than five different jobs in a lifetime!  
As a starter, Generation X leaders may apply these values and characteristics to develop new ways of leading schools and working with students. Based on our early data, our Generation X school leaders appear to:

  • express great optimism that their values and abilities can positively influence their schools and student outcomes
  • face pressure to work twice as hard and be twice as good to prove their merit
  • demonstrate comfort and appreciation with the accountability systems that have been in place since they started their teaching careers
  • express uncertainty about “what they want to be when they grow up”

and,

  • be actively encouraged to develop work-life balance… however this only appears to apply to leaders with children!

Follow this space for more details on what we are learning about Generation X school leaders and emerging educational trends in these Global Cities. Also, if you are, or know, a Generation X school leader, please get in touch!