Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

Getting the message out - before it's too late

Hand reaching for a message in a bottle

The National College for School Leadership has announced a ?10 million plan to help recruit more people to senior leadership posts. Julie Nightingale discusses what is being done nationally to address the growing leadership gap in schools and the FE sector.

There is a well-publicised crisis looming in headteacher recruitment, and the FE sector is experiencing similar problems in finding principals.

Research collated by the National College for School Leadership (NCSL) in 2006 shows that more than half of the country's headteachers are over 50 and almost a quarter are over 55.

The numbers of school leaders retiring is likely to rise from 2,250 in 2004 to nearly 3,500 in 2009, dropping back to 2,500 in 2016.

It's a similar picture in colleges where the age profile is also skewed. Around half the principals of the 370 colleges in England are over 50, according to research a few years ago by the Learning and Skills Development Agency.

Potentially more worrying is that around 40 per cent of managers on the next tier down are also over 50. Given that many are likely to retire at or before 60, it means the sector will have to recruit around 200 principals over the next ten years.

Clearly, it is not an exaggeration to say that the shortage of leaders in schools and colleges is reaching crisis level.

In schools, the good news is that the number of teachers in their early 30s has risen. However, a trough looms in the early- to mid-40s generation, indicating that there will not be enough teachers coming through to fill the vacant headships if the teacher-to-leader conversion rate stays as it is now.

To head off a drastic shortage, the number of school leaders coming through needs to increase by 15 to 20 per cent by 2009.

Pressure point

The bulge in the retirement pipeline is the main problem but it is compounded by another: fewer assistants, deputies and middle leaders are aspiring to headship in schools.

Speaking at NCSL's round of regional conferences in 2006, Geoff Southworth, the college's deputy chief executive, said people were deterred by the perception that the job is bureaucracy-laden, with overwhelming levels of accountability.

Better levels of pay which some heads have enjoyed in recent years are not enough to overcome the negative impressions.

Added to this, the number and variety of opportunities for talented individuals to make their mark in education has also expanded, enabling them to fulfil their professional ambitions elsewhere and more swiftly than if they served the standard 20-year apprenticeship to become a headteacher.

Teachers and lecturers are hardly flocking to fill the vacancies now appearing in FE colleges either. Conrad Benefield, programme director for building future talent at the Centre for Excellence in Leadership (CEL), the NCSL equivalent for further education, says anecdotal evidence suggests that many colleges are reporting increasing difficulty in recruiting senior managers and that the number of applications often is low.

Conrad said: "On one level, there is the perception that if you are going for a principal's position, it's a very big step up. There is greater exposure and greater accountability and many principals now take the title of chief executive which seems to emphasise that. It's also partly that people don't always feel that they have what it takes to make the step up and they lack confidence."

As with headteachers, the salary increase from middle management role to principal is not necessarily enough to compensate for the added pressures, he adds.


Without sufficient leaders to fill their vacancies, schools will have to cast their nets more widely. The 20-year 'apprenticeship' which has been standard for headteachers in the past will be unsustainable. Governors and parents will have to accept that heads - and deputies and assistant heads - have to get younger.

The impact of market forces cannot be ignored. There are already stories of super-salaries and 'golden hellos' - reportedly up to ?40,000 in the south-east - offered by governors to lure headteachers to their school. Salaries for heads in some of the most challenging schools are reaching ?120,000 and above.

Of course, for aspiring deputies and assistants, there is an upside to the current shortage in that they will have a greater choice of posts, should they wish to go for the top job.

A range of initiatives is under way to meet the succession planning challenge.

The Fast Track teachers scheme, managed by NCSL, is an accelerated leadership development programme. Targeted at young staff - participants are around 30 - it aims to develop their leadership potential using intensive coaching, mentoring and residential courses. The programme includes leading a project on their school's development needs.

Working alongside other young teachers who were leadership-minded and not constrained by age or lack of experience helped to dispel any doubts about her own readiness for headship, said participant Liz Robinson.

"Suddenly there was this network of potential heads who were committed to going for leadership and it generated enormous energy. As soon as I started mixing with them, the idea of 'serving your time' before you can aspire to headship no longer seemed to apply."

Challenging schools

The two-year Future Leaders programme is designed to develop teachers to take on the leadership of a challenging school within four years and become assistant heads or deputies within 12 months of finishing the programme. It is open to teachers of all ages; some of the current cohort are in their 50s.

The publicity claims it is 'not a programme for the faint-hearted'. Selection is tough with an interview, half-day assessment at an external centre plus on-the-job assessment and the course begins with a summer programme of training followed by a year in an urban school working with an outstanding headteacher.

In year two, candidates are expected to take on a leadership role in a challenging urban school with further training and support from leaders in business as well as education.

The programme is rapid but intensive, says Iain Hall, its director of training and a former headteacher himself, and is informed by the experiences of some of the country's most successful urban leaders, distilling their wisdom into some basic tenets.

These include creating the right culture within a school to raise aspirations, ensuring consistency in learning and teaching across the school and good use of data for diagnostic assessment.

"What we look for in candidates is a sense of mission, dedicated to making improvements in the lives of children, but they must also be highly skilled teachers," he said.

The programme currently operates only in London - though graduates are free to move outside the capital to different posts.

Within the FE sector, CEL's 12-month aspiring principals and leaders programme is aimed at lecturers who already hold a strategic role and incorporates a blend of work-based learning, projects, audits and assignments. It's priority is developing leadership and strategic planning skills.

There is also a fast track programme for middle leaders to encourage the reluctant and less confident who nevertheless show leadership ability to take the next step. "That's where people tend to get stuck and talent is slowed down," said Conrad Benefield.

Local solutions

The latest and, in many ways, most ambitious of the initiatives on offer is NCSL's 'local solutions'. It devolves the power to find new ways of attracting potential candidates to schools and local authorities on the basis that they are the ones best placed to identify new talent and manage its development.

It might mean working collaboratively across schools in teacher exchange and placement schemes, establishing joint leadership development programmes or any other mechanism which suits the schools and their context.

The scheme was officially rolled out last month following an eight-month pilot and is funded by some of the ?10m which the college received from the DfES to devote to succession planning in 2007-08. Some schools and LAs are getting pump-priming money either to release staff or bring in people for half days to work as local coordinators.

Geoff Southworth says a variety of local solutions is essential because the problem cannot be solved by the DfES or by legislation. "We need to accelerate things if we are to bring on a new generation and to give people a range of experiences a lot more quickly.

"We also need to make sure that while we are changing some of the attitudes towards the length of time it takes to be a head, we get the right quality of people."

Exactly how many new leaders the initiative will be expected to produce is unclear, given that no one can say for certain how many vacancies will arise once the current over-50 generation of heads begins to leave.

"We don't know when the heads who are over 50 now will retire," said Geoff. "They may all go in one year or some may delay. But our wish is to make sure there is no crisis; that there are enough of the right people; that they are all well prepared and of a high quality, available when they are needed."

Best job

ASCL has consistently said that despite the heavy workload, weight of responsibilities and accountability, initiative overload and all of the other burdens heads and principals have to shoulder, the vast majority still derive enormous professional satisfaction and personal fulfillment from the job.

Yet the message that this is still a worthwhile and immensely enjoyable job for many does not seem to be picked up by those who need to hear it - the potential heads of tomorrow.

Perhaps one task that should be formally added to heads' and principals' job description is talking up the job to their younger colleagues, espousing its benefits and generally encouraging more of those much needed aspiring leaders to take the plunge.

Julie Nightingale is a freelance journalist who writes frequently for the Guardian and other education publications.

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