Diary of a headteacher: How brave is your leadership?

Written by: Diary of a Headteacher | Published:
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Do you game the accountability system and lead for short-term gain? Or do you do lead for the long-term and in the best interests of your school’s students?

Education for some time in this country has unfortunately been riddled with perverse incentives.

Since I have been a teacher I have always had issues with several features of our education system that I have felt are just fundamentally wrong – and which produce behaviours that are unethical and not in the best interests of children.

In the “mid-noughties”, when I qualified as a teacher, I remember my first school shovelling large numbers of C/D borderline students through BTEC qualifications that were “worth” four GCSE grades in the pursuit of massaging the five A* to C headline figure towards an upward trajectory.

In fact, I remember being instructed by my headteacher to complete the BTEC course I was teaching by February half-term so the students in my class could have more English and maths.

I am sure these students benefited from this and many of them achieved a C grade that they otherwise might not have done, but it felt like we were “game-playing” to meet the requirements of the accountability system.

I understand why we did it and at the time I felt like we were making a difference for those kids, giving them a better chance in life by getting their five A* to C grades including English and maths. But it wasn’t just about the kids and it wasn’t just about improving their life chances. It was primarily about increasing our headline figure because it made the school look better.

There was certainly not a great deal of focus on learning, I was merely getting the students to churn out huge amounts of coursework as quickly as possible, much of which they instantly forgot, so our English and maths teachers could parachute in to spoon-feed them whatever they needed to scrape a C grade.

The Wolf Report put pay to much of this game-playing as BTECs suddenly became much more challenging and only “worth” one GCSE.

However, schools quickly found their way around this and discovered new ways of increasing their headline scores without doing anything remotely like improving the culture of learning or the quality of teaching. The infamous ECDL (European Computer Driving Licence) recently became the vehicle of choice for boosting your Progress 8 score for the first two years within a reformed accountability structure for schools, but as soon as someone noticed schools entering entire cohorts of year 11 and delivering this qualification within a fortnight, this was removed from the list of courses that “count”.

Anyone who tells you they were delivering the ECDL to their year 11 cohort because it made a difference to the future life prospects of their students is probably stretching the truth somewhat.

Is what they were doing wrong though? Morally, there might be some question marks, but in reality they were merely taking advantage of a loophole in the accountability system that heaps a disproportionate amount of pressure on school leaders, which inevitably gets passed down to teachers and students.

Why wouldn’t you take advantage of such an opportunity when the stakes are so high and the cost of failure so great?

It is a question many of us in the privileged position of leading schools have faced – and the circumstances you find yourself in often dictate how you are able to respond.
In a challenging situation, it takes a brave headteacher to invest all of your energies into strategies that will take time to bear fruit.

Committing to long-term but sustainable school improvement strategies is in my mind unquestionably the right thing to do if you want your school to grow, develop and thrive over time and have the capacity to continue improving beyond your tenure.

Not all school leaders have the luxury of time and it is about time our accountability system recognised this and supported schools in developing strategies that in the long term will enable students to thrive and succeed while they are at school and throughout their adult lives.

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


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