Recently, with a number of other new headteachers in the local authority where I work, we explored our motivations as to why we wanted to become school leaders. It was a very interesting discussion and several heads, including myself, compared the reasons we entered headship with the reasons we entered teaching originally. There were many that overlapped and several that had clearly evolved.
We then reflected on how our motivations influenced our day-to-day behaviour. Many of us spoke about our educational philosophy and moral purpose as heads, and it was interesting to analyse whether our actions, behaviours and attitudes demonstrated these on a daily basis.
Were we becoming too consumed by the whirlwind pace of school life and were we not as mindful as we could be of the reasons why we do the job? Most reflected that although we were incredibly busy in our first year of headship, our rationale for leading a school was always at the forefront of our thoughts. We also identified that when we encountered challenging circumstances it was often necessary to step back and base our decisions and actions on our morals.
Following this session, I thought about the key decisions I have had to make in my first year as a head. Some of these include exclusions, how to deal with complaints against members of staff, how our curriculum might change as a result of accountability reform, and how to handle redundancy situations. I feel confident that I have based my decisions on a sound educational philosophy, that I have consulted staff and sought advice from key personnel.
It occurred to me that school leaders are often placed in challenging situations when it comes to implementing educational reform and shaping their school ethos and approach to improvement planning. We are more accountable for the outcomes of our students than we have ever been. When the stakes are so high, is our behaviour driven mostly by our educational moral purpose or is it influenced more by the demands of league table performance or Ofsted? Recent reforms to accountability have pitched the interests of school leaders against those of parents and students in some circumstances. An example is the introduction of Progress 8 and the incentive for schools to ensure that all (or certainly most) students have the full complement and correct combination of qualifications to maximise their score.
I am in favour of Progress 8 as a measurement of school performance. However, parents of students currently in year 10 don’t particularly care about this, and students won’t be fussed about their Progress 8 scores either come results day. So, when a parent and child argue strongly against having to take a certain combination of subjects, school leaders will have tough decisions to make. Is their curriculum a rigid structure that fully services the accountability measures, or is there a degree of flexibility that allows students some leeway, even if it negatively affects school performance?
It comes back to the question: what drives our behaviour as school leaders? Similarly, how do we respond to changes in the Ofsted framework when they are published? Do we make snap decisions to change our approach to school improvement? What are the key principles that we base our school improvement planning on and what are the major influences on these? Is it the requirements of Ofsted, or the need to perform well in league tables, or do the reasons run deeper than this?
I guess these are questions school leaders should regularly consider and I am sure that headteachers have always been faced with a plethora of moral dilemmas. My challenge to myself is to ensure I strike the right balance with the decisions I make and to never deviate too far from the reasons why I became a both a teacher and a headteacher.
SecEd’s headteacher diarist is in his first year of headship at a comprehensive school in the Midlands.