What is worrying today's school leaders?


From recruitment and the curriculum, to Ofsted and workload, the annual State of Education report, which dissects the views of school leaders across the country, makes for sobering reading ahead of the General Election. Fergal Roche explains

School leaders say they are overworked, disenchanted and unsure who should take education forward after the election, according to the annual State of Education report.

In the spring term, The Key surveyed more than 1,000 of its members across the country to explore the big issues that face school leaders today – from government policies, Ofsted and accountability to teachers’ morale and the daily challenges of running a school.

The results tell us that school leaders are fed-up with constant changes and are, unsurprisingly, disenchanted as they face continued challenges around tightening budgets, a shortage of places and a hefty workload.

While there have been some positive reforms, the findings demonstrate the frustration that is being felt with politics across the board as school leaders call for less interference from Westminster. 

Frenetic change has been building up in the system for some years, starting well before 2010. The issue, it seems, is not always with the changes themselves – indeed our findings show school leaders have seen significant benefits from some of them – but with the sheer number of changes, which has an impact on school leaders’ ability to get on with the job of improving outcomes for the children and young people.

Looking back over the last 12 months, school leaders have faced some tough challenges. The survey tells us that managing teachers’ workload was toughest of all (rated “difficult” by 82.2 per cent of the school leaders), just ahead of implementing the removal of national curriculum levels (75.3 per cent). 

Next in the list were managing teachers’ morale (69.6 per cent), preparing for Ofsted (63.8 per cent), and teacher recruitment (62.6 per cent).

On workload and morale, 85 per cent of the school leaders feel that morale in the teaching profession has worsened over the past five years. At the same time,  91.6 per cent feel their own work/life balance could be improved, while the majority agree that their role has had a negative impact on their mental health (64.2 per cent) and family life (77.6 per cent).

More than half (53.8 per cent) say they plan to leave their role in the next three years and 75.1 per cent think teaching is less attractive to new entrants now than five years ago.

When it comes to government policy, 77.2 per cent say they are dissatisfied with the coalition government’s performance on education, but 58.2 per cent are unsure which party is best equipped to improve the education system from 2015.

Only 6.7 per cent believe that the Conservatives are best placed to improve the education system, while 20.5 per cent think the Labour party is best equipped to do so.

Despite this, school leaders are positive about the quality of education in England’s schools. Almost half (46.7 per cent) believe that it has got better in the past five years, and just 12 per cent say it has got worse.

When asked to choose three factors to most improve the quality of education, fewer in-year statutory changes (chosen by 45.2 per cent) was the most common response, followed by reducing teacher workload (40.7 per cent), increasing funding (35.3 per cent), and improving the quality of teaching (27.3 per cent).

School leaders also want to be more certain about what works: 99 per cent think education reforms should be evaluated for their effectiveness, while 71.4 per cent say that current systems for accessing and disseminating research are inadequate.

There were a number of other messages in the report. Notably, more than 70 per cent believe that the Pupil Premium will have a positive impact on the quality of education over the next 18 months, and 50 per cent think Teaching School Alliances will have a positive impact. However, 76.8 per cent say free schools would have a negative impact, while 55.8 per cent oppose scrapping the national curriculum (only 17.1 per cent supported its removal).

On Ofsted, 80.9 per cent of the school leaders support replacing Ofsted with a body independent of central government, and 79.8 per cent back an expert panel taking over responsibility for setting the national curriculum from the Department for Education.

Finally, almost 88 per cent of the school leaders are in support of providing more opportunities and support for pupils to follow vocational pathways.

We asked John Tomsett, headteacher and co-founder of the Headteachers’ Roundtable, what he made of the findings. He said: “It is clear from the responses that school leaders find government interference a huge distraction.”

However, he continued: “The fact that the quality of teaching was rated only fourth most important when it comes to improving education is probably the most striking – and the most disturbing – aspect of the data. The quality of teaching has to be the single most important factor when it comes to improving education. If we are funded well enough to run our schools so that we can recruit and retain the best teachers in the world, then we will have the best education system in the world. It is that simple.”

With John emphasising that drive to improve, it is good news that the majority of school leaders feel education is better now than in 2010, and that there is such a thirst in the sector to advance the quality of teaching and learning by drawing on “what works”, research and evidence.

Let’s remember as we head into the election that schools are the powerhouse of our economy, developing the skills, the attitude and the character we need to be competitive. It is vital that whoever comes to power recognises the need to work with school leaders to address their concerns and empower our schools to provide the best education possible.

  • Fergal Roche is CEO of The Key, an organisation that provides leadership and management support to school leaders and governors.

Further information
Download the State of Education report at www.thekeysupport.com/State-of-Education-2015



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