Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

New dawn or total eclipse?

Stages of the moon

The Labour Party's version of succession planning is not, perhaps, one which schools and colleges would wish to use as a model of good practice. John Dunford comments on the handover and the outlook for education under a Brown government.

This edition of Leader focuses on the important issue of succession planning for education leaders. Where are the next generation of leaders coming from when the post-war baby boomers retire?

The problem, of course, is one of both demand and supply. Nearly half of headteachers will be retiring in the next four years. So there will be plenty of increased opportunities for deputy and assistant heads to move up to headship. But over 40 per cent of deputy heads and 70 per cent of middle leaders say that they do not aspire to headship.

All school leaders have a part to play in improving this situation. Most importantly, those who are not heads need to reassess their career plans and weigh up again the advantages and disadvantages of being a head.

On the one hand, there is the added responsibility and accountability. On the other hand, there are the opportunities to improve the life chances of a larger number of young people, to lead a larger team, to put your ideas into practice, to work with many different agencies locally and nationally, to contribute to the wider leadership of the education system. I loved being a head and would still be doing it if I wasn't your general secretary.

Responsibility for succession planning lies with heads and governors too. Heads need to encourage those who could fill the forthcoming vacancies to put themselves forward. Too often we hear about the downside of headship and not enough about the upside.

I frequently find myself asked to explain why there are so few applications for headship, as yet another set of depressing statistics emerges from John Howson's annual recruitment survey, conducted for ASCL and NAHT.

I always try to put across a balanced picture, pointing out the good side of the job as well as the problems, but the positive parts are not usually reported. The press likes to concentrate on the negative. It is all the more important, therefore, that at school level potential heads hear about the joy and privilege of being a head as well as the added responsibility and accountability.

Local answers

During the next few years many governing bodies will find themselves with too few applications for the headship of their schools. Already over a quarter of vacant headships have to be re-advertised and this number will increase. In Catholic schools, London schools and certain other categories, the proportion is very much higher.

The NCSL policy on succession planning states that a national strategy is not enough. Family and other commitments mean that very few teachers nowadays apply for a post more than 50 miles from where they currently live, so what is needed is concerted local action to increase the number of applicants to headships.

Many local authorities do not have the capacity to create a viable successful policy. Therefore, school leaders and governing bodies have a major role in finding future school leaders.

Governors may want to do everything they can to keep good staff in their schools, but they must now recognise their wider responsibility to the education system to develop future leaders - even if it means that their best teachers become leaders elsewhere.

With this shortage of heads, governors will need to try a bit harder, not just to fill the post, but to appoint the right person. It is always better not to appoint than to get the wrong person.

It's bad for the school, bad for the head and bad for the governing body. Appointing in haste often leads to repentance at leisure. Using a headship appointment advice, such as that provided by ASCL, does not guarantee success, but it greatly increases the chance that the right appointment will be made.

Evidence from NCSL tells us that acting heads are more likely to apply for headships. In other words, people who have had the experience of running a school, albeit on a temporary basis, appreciate the positive parts of the job and are therefore more willing to take on the extra responsibilities. Giving deputy heads the opportunity to run the school will increase the proportion applying for headships.

This is one aspect of distributing leadership in the school, which is a sine qua non of giving teachers increased levels of responsibility and leadership opportunities, and which helps staff on the promotion ladder.

Government succession

And what about that other succession that has just taken place? Gordon Brown has said that he places the same priority on education as Tony Blair. What should be his priorities if he is to leave his mark on English education?

He must build on recent successes and not introduce a whole new set of initiatives when there are already too many in the pipeline for the next few years.

He must motivate the teaching profession and demonstrate that he values what we do, thus helping to retain the existing teaching force and recruit the next generation. Even more important in the present context is that he must offer support to school leaders in a way that encourages more people to apply for leadership posts.

He must do everything necessary to make a success of the new diplomas and, in particular, he must bring A levels and GCSEs into the diploma system along the lines recommended by Sir Mike Tomlinson. This must be accompanied by an increased emphasis on partnership working and a greater recognition of the importance of further education colleges in the system.

The school and college accountability regime needs to be slimmed down to something that we could recognise as intelligent accountability.

He must reduce the size of the testing and examination system and put more trust in the professionalism of teachers to determine a proportion of external examination grades on the basis of in-course work.

ASCL looks forward to working with him on this agenda. Having talked to him on a number of occasions, I have no doubt of his commitment to education and, in particular, of his wish to raise the aspirations of families and young people.

As Chancellor, Gordon Brown has been well known for his adherence to targets, but he must recognise, as he moves next door, the need to help schools and colleges to focus on high priority areas and not have their efforts dissipated by a range of new targets.

I suppose that there has been succession planning of a sort in the prime ministerial handover, but not of the kind that we would recognise in schools and colleges as a model of good practice. Nonetheless, I think that there will be a great deal of continuity in education policy.

Blair's mixed legacy

For schools and colleges, there have been positives and negatives in the Blair era. As I said publicly at the time of Blair's declaration of the date of his departure from office, I see recent education policy from the perspective of having been a headteacher through most of the 1980s and 1990s.

During these years of Conservative rule I remember how bad it felt to be leading a state school at a time when the government neither valued nor supported state schools. While I don't hesitate to criticise the initiative overload, the excessive testing and the over-accountability, credit should be given to Tony Blair for leading a government that placed a high value on the work of state schools, and of school leaders in particular.

At the top of the list of Tony Blair's positive legacy to education must be funding, in particular, the injection of capital funding to start to put right the serious neglect of school buildings over the previous 18 years.

His other achievements include the priority given to helping schools in challenging circumstances, when previously there had been little or no support for schools serving our most challenging communities.

His government should be commended for establishing the social partnership to plan and deliver workforce reforms and rising standards in schools. This has created a constructive climate between the government and unions, in contrast to the tensions of previous years.

Other achievements would include the clear focus on raising standards of literacy and numeracy in primary schools, albeit one that has stalled through the poor testing regime, and the support for leadership within the system, not least in the foundation of the National College for School Leadership and the Centre for Excellence in Leadership.

However, there also is much to criticise in the last ten years. The incessant headline-grabbing initiatives have often been more about politics than the benefit of education. The over-reliance on testing for accountability and the failure to stem the expensive growth in the examinations industry; the increased pressure to meet targets without a coherent framework of support when schools are in difficulty; the failure of courage in not implementing the main recommendations of the Tomlinson report on 14 to 19; and the position of further education colleges remaining as the Cinderellas of the maintained education system.

Nor should we forget the damage done through re-appointing Chris Woodhead as chief inspector.

Whether for the national government or for individual schools and colleges, succession planning is about people as well as policies. We have to hope that the new prime minister will give a high priority to both.

John Dunford is ASCL General Secretary

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