What support do headteachers get?

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Headteachers who are supported themselves are better equipped to support and lead their staff, says Julian Stanley.

In this column I often talk about what support and training our classroom teachers need, but what about our senior leaders?

The biggest strain for heads is accountability; they can feel overwhelmed by a sense of responsibility for absolutely everyone in school, including pupils, teachers and support staff, and, of course, they feel acutely the pressures from Ofsted and delivering what has felt of late like a barrage of curriculum reforms.

In many cases, they know that their staff cannot work any harder, but they have to fulfil demands from “on high” and it is the head who has to deal that blow and take the inevitable recoil from their staff.

An essential part of the headship role is the management of people. At secondary level as we get more and more academies and free schools, with growing numbers of pupils and staff and expanding curriculums, the headteacher’s role has transcended into an executive role more on par with a business chief than a school leader. Some heads are now being recruited with little to no teaching experience, but perhaps with a wealth of this kind of business experience from the private sector.

However, at an education debate during the Conservative Party Conference last week, a secondary headteacher highlighted how much it benefits staff and students to have a head who retains some connection to the classroom, so they don’t lose contact with the day-to-day realities of teaching.

It is a challenge to squeeze in all the bureaucracy alongside managing staff and maintaining relationships with pupils and parents. Headteachers then must be willing to have an honest conversation about what they can and cannot do alone and surround themselves with experts in a supportive network. They must maintain that passion for children and their learning and have a resilience to cope with the vicissitudes of the job.

This week we will publish the results of our Education Staff Health Survey 2014, where we asked teachers about their physical and mental fitness and how this was affected by work. 

Among most classroom teachers the biggest complaints were increasing and unsustainable workloads and a lack of support from senior management. Meanwhile, and quite tellingly, headteachers were saying the same thing – the significant difference being that their managers lie outside the school walls.

One stressed headteacher told us she felt she was unable to turn to anybody to talk to about her problems: “As the head you have to project an image of being okay to prevent other staff worrying,” she said.

Our sister charity Worklife Support runs a peer-mentoring programme for headteachers, called Headspace. The forum, mediated by a counsellor, is a rare opportunity for heads to come “off script” and share their problems, and it reassures heads that the issues they are struggling with are commonplace.

It is important to understand how everyone in a school can contribute, from classroom teachers to middle management, and the headteacher as the leading figure. The governors must act to support and challenge that leadership. 

Just as headteachers are the lynch-pin of an effective school environment, governing bodies can make or break a head. Schools are struggling to recruit governors, making it harder to select effective people with useful knowledge and a range of expertise onto the governing body. 

We also run GovernorLine, a free helpline similar to our one for teachers, which has been commissioned by the Department for Education. It is one port of call for governors to find practical tips on things like appointing headteachers, managing conflicts, dealing with workload and understanding the responsibilities of the role. However, we need more structured training for governors in the first place so they can support and nurture our heads, who in turn can guide teachers to be the best they can be.

  • Julian Stanley is chief executive of the Teacher Support Network. Visit www.teachersupport.info or call 08000 562 561 (England), 08000 855088 (Wales). 


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