Diary of a headteacher: The tough decisions of leadership

Written by: Diary of a headteacher | Published:
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Leadership can often mean having to make impossible or difficult decisions. Our headteacher diarist reflects on two such moments in his career

The professional life of a headteacher is littered with dilemmas. There are often times I have found myself having to select the lesser of two evils, settling for a compromise that I’m not happy with, but ultimately understanding that it is my responsibility to make tough decisions and steer the school in the right direction and in the right manner.

I have often found myself at the centre of staffing dilemmas during my time as a headteacher. In my first headship I faced the profoundly challenging situation of reducing the cost of staffing through a series of redundancy processes that spanned the course of two years.

It was a painful experience and as a school we were forced into a corner where there was no other option other than to enter redundancy and restructuring procedures in order to avoid being issued with a financial notice to improve.

We had been left with a hangover and legacy of over-staffing and over-spending and as a school in one of the poorest funded local authorities in the country, money was extremely sparse.

Narrowing the curriculum, increasing class sizes and cutting A level courses were hard decisions to make, purely based on educational principles; however delivering the live and changing news to loyal and long-serving members of staff that they were being made redundant was extremely difficult and I hope that I am not ever faced with having to do this again.

While there are some decisions we have to make as headteachers that are unpalatable and unpopular, there are some dilemmas we face that do not involve such dire consequences as redundancy, but which are also very tricky to navigate.

One such instance occurred recently, with three very talented middle leaders who I am working with. There is no question in my mind that these three leaders should be working on senior leadership teams – they are running high-performing departments, developing teams of empowered and motivated teachers and having impact all over the school outside their subject areas.

They are arguably more effective than some of the senior leaders I have worked with in previous schools and they are champing at the bit to work on a senior leadership team. They have completed the national qualification for senior leaders and successfully led whole-school projects that have become staple parts of our monitoring and evaluation calendars.

The dilemma I face surrounds my desire to support and challenge them professionally, but not wanting to lose them.

The problem is that I have a highly effective senior leadership team who are unlikely to move on within the next few years, and therefore there is no natural progression route for them at our school. They should be applying to become assistant headteachers but at the moment they are highly engaged with our vision and strategies and they are very loyal to our school.

In my duty as the headteacher to keep the most effective staff so that our students benefit from their leadership and teaching abilities, I want them to stay and impart their expertise upon their colleagues.

However, the developmental side of me does not want to see their leadership potential restricted and I do not want to hold them back.
I know that deep down, we are doing the right thing in building sustainable leadership capacity among our staff and although these three middle leaders are likely to have to move on at some point in the near future if they are to progress their careers, I also know that they have been expertly coaching the next generation of leaders within their departments who can succeed them when the right opportunity arises.

It is nowhere near the level of difficulty I have previously faced, and compared to redundancy processes, these types of dilemmas really should be a breeze. However, as I’ve come to realise in headship, there are very few things that can be called “easy”.

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


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