Diary of a headteacher: Gaming the system?


As school leaders, are we driven by the moral purpose of education or by the demands of Ofsted, accountability and the government? Our diarist offers his reflections

Since becoming a headteacher I have developed a growing interest in the theory of leadership. In particular I have felt the urge to explore what drives school leaders and what factors influence their behaviour. 

I have experienced a wide range of leadership responsibilities throughout my life and I reflected earlier this week on whether some of my more early experiences of leadership have influenced my desire to lead a school. From captaining football teams at school and university, managing county football teams as a young PE teacher, to my more recent school leadership roles, I have generally found that leading people comes naturally to me.

As I embarked on my first headship eight months ago, this was something that filled me with confidence and fear in equal measures. I felt confident because I generally establish positive relationships with most people that I work with quite quickly and this would aid me in making a good, solid start and getting to know my staff. 

However, what filled me with dread was the fact that I was beginning to recognise that for most of my career I had relied on this approach and hadn’t ever reflected on why I was a successful leader. I performed many key aspects of leadership effectively on a daily basis without understanding the underlying principles of why a particular approach works well. 

In summary, I was not a student of leadership theory. I had not read many books on leadership and I had certainly not made the application of leadership theory a conscious part of my approach in school. 

Clearly this was something I needed to develop and during my first eight months as a head I have thrown myself into developing a deep understanding of the theoretical aspects of school leadership. Since this revelation I have found that I have become much more reflective and increasingly self-aware.

One thing in particular has resonated with me recently, and following a conversation with a headteacher colleague from a neighbouring school I have been thinking even more about what drives our behaviour as school leaders. Is it our educational moral purpose or are we overly swayed by a particular government or Ofsted agenda? 

Is our behaviour as school leaders driven too much by accountability systems? In this discussion we were talking about the impending accountability reforms in secondary education and he was very clear that his school was going to ensure that every student fulfilled the requirements of Progress 8. 

This made me think about the way in which the current accountability system of measuring the percentage of students attaining five A* to C grades including English and maths offers perverse incentives to schools to focus a disproportionate amount of resources on students hovering around that C/D borderline. 

I, like many, had welcomed Progress 8 with open arms as a more equitable accountability measure which would provide parity across schools regardless of the demography of their intake. 

Surely this would discourage the game-playing that undoubtedly happens in some schools to boost a headline measure score? Surely this would enable heads to lead their schools in an equitable manner, where every grade for every student in every subject counts equally? Surely this would result in more school leaders’ behaviour being driven more by moral purpose and a sound educational philosophy rather than an accountability system? 

Well, as it turns out, the goalposts have been shifted yet again by the government and following a recent publication, finalising the finer details of how Progress 8 will be calculated, it appears that the door is again wide open for gaming the system. It will be interesting to see how many school leaders walk through it.

  • SecEd’s headteacher diarist is in his first year of headship at a comprehensive school in the Midlands.


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