I had a disturbing but depressingly familiar conversation with a fellow headteacher this afternoon. They have recently taken up their first headship in a school that has a string of outstanding Ofsted judgements to its name. I did the same in 2011. They succeeded the previous incumbent who had been there for a significant period of time. I did the same in 2011. They have found a number of concerns that require immediate attention and a longer list of things that must change swiftly. I did the same in 2011. This is the fourth headteacher that I know, including me, who has been through this. I’m sure there are plenty more.
So what? Well, a colleague from the local authority said to me in 2011 that he’d seen this coming at my school, and could list a few other schools who may be at risk of something similar occurring. At least there was a list, but nothing was done to support the new headteachers. A heads up would have been nice. Two of us dropped from outstanding to requires improvement. It matters because my colleague’s school is now undergoing some rapid changes which are stressful for all involved, test morale and, ultimately, impact on the quality of the education that the students are receiving.
After four months of my first year I had decided that I’d had enough. I was a novice headteacher who wasn’t up to the job and, for the sake of the school and for my health, I needed to step down. I called our Chair of Governors on a Sunday evening after a day, my wife’s birthday, fighting the nausea of stress. I told him that I was resigning. He asked me to think about it for a few days. Weakly, I agreed. I can’t remember why. He must have called someone in the local authority as an officer was in my office before 9.30am the following morning. I was having a nosebleed at the time and I could see her thinking “This man is about to keel over“.
I stayed. Again, I can’t remember why. A lot has happened since then, but the process was painful for everyone. A number of staff fundamentally disagreed with my vision and principles and I regret the impact it had on them. Those who stayed and backed me are incredible. I have asked a lot of them and they’ve risen to the challenge. My respect for them is profound.
Unfortunately this experience is far too common. Succession planning is not given sufficient weight by some governing bodies and there is not enough thought as to if and how a school will function without the current headteacher. I have observed three headteacher appointments, including my own, and in each case I saw a governing body that had no strong sense of what it was looking for. All were swayed by those who looked and spoke in a way they thought was befitting of a headteacher.
Yesterday I had the privilege of meeting my headteacher from when I was at infant school in 1982. We were at Wellington College for a community carol service and reminisced for a while. We got to discussing about the difficulties faced by headteachers of admitting when standards are not as good as they once were. The longer you are in post the bigger the danger of believing that you own the school. The emotional investment you have in the school becomes enormous and it can be tough to admit that quality may have slipped. Rumsfeld’s unknown unknowns mount up as your perspective of what the rest of the educational community is up to can diminish. This danger is multiplied in a special school as there is little in terms of external validation. RAISEOnline provides little, there are no KS2 or KS3 SATs and no GCSE or A-Level benchmarks. The danger is also larger in small schools, which special schools almost inevitably are, as headteachers can make most or all of the decisions.
So, governors, do you discuss succession planning? What’s going to stop working if your current headteacher moves on? Is leadership devolved and distributed sufficiently to ensure there isn’t a sole decision maker in the school or limited to a small group?
Headteachers, what is your successor going to be faced with when you’re not there any more? No headteacher is irreplaceable. It’s our duty to ensure that the schools we serve can run smoothly after we’re gone. Your successor doesn’t need a nosebleed – they’ll have enough to deal with.