Heads ask DfE: ‘Why should we risk our careers?’

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Headteachers have spelt out the scale of the challenge facing the government’s new Talented Leaders programme.

The scheme launches this spring and is to place 100 “high-quality school leaders” in schools in challenging circumstances in its first two years.

However, while welcoming the move, school leaders have warned that the current climate “disincentivises” headteachers from working in these schools, with too many having seen colleagues “forced out of their jobs”.

They claim that many heads do not want to risk their careers by taking on challenging schools.

They also say that “badly timed” Ofsted inspections often pose a huge risk to headteachers taking over challenging schools and have called for an “Ofsted window” to be introduced in these situations.

Schools minister David Laws unveiled details of the programme during a speech to the North of England Education Conference last week. 

The premise is to match excellent leaders with schools facing “difficult challenges in parts of the country that struggle to attract top leadership talent”.

Mr Laws said: “Schools in such areas will be able to request a high-performing school leader from a pool of some of our brightest talents.

“We will work with our delivery partner to agree the areas of the country on which the programme will focus, and we expect that the school leaders will then go into those areas in small groups to lead challenging schools.”

Both the leadership unions have responded positively to the plan, but have warned of the challenges it must overcome. The Association of School and College Leaders pointed to a survey of members in October which found that 78 per cent said the prospect of taking on a school in challenging circumstances is less appealing now than a year ago.

General secretary Brian Lightman said: “Schools in the most challenging areas need the strongest leadership, but the current climate disincentivises leaders from working in these schools. Too many school leaders have seen colleagues forced out of their jobs when it has been decided that results are not improving quickly enough. 

“School leaders want to make a difference to children’s lives, but many are asking themselves why they should risk their careers to take on the most challenging schools. This programme will hopefully tackle some of those issues.”

Russell Hobby, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, also warned that headteachers coming into challenging schools need “time, space and support”.

He added: “Two of the biggest risks are discovering unexpected ‘skeletons in the closet’ and a badly timed Ofsted inspection. The government could help tackle this by offering audits and transparent information on the recruiting schools. We should also look at creating an Ofsted window, with incoming heads able to request either an immediate inspection or a two-year gap. Ofsted can stay in touch through HMI monitoring visits.

“When turning around a school, things can get difficult before they get better – we surely want heads to build for the long term rather than look over their shoulders.”

In his speech, Mr Laws added: “This is not about parachuting in ‘hero heads’. The objective will be to ensure sustainable school improvement. We expect these headteachers to work with school staff to strengthen succession planning within their schools and to support the development of a long-term strategy.”

The government is now tendering for a “delivery partner” to run the programme.

Mr Laws also confirmed that the Department for Education will be making an announcement “in due course” on new pay plans that are set to incentivise school leaders to work in the most challenging schools.

It is currently considering a report from the School Teachers’ Review Body (STRB) on the issue. Mr Laws added: “We have argued in favour of greater financial incentives for leaders to take on the most challenging schools in the areas of greatest educational disadvantage. The STRB has now submitted its report. We are considering their recommendations and will respond in due course.”


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