More than just a number? Hey with Zion headteacher questions why older heads are leaving roles before reaching retirement age

Published by Andrew Clowes on November 8th 2021, 11:03am

Following the publication of a recent survey indicating that one in five headteachers have decided to bring forward their retirement over the last year, Andrew Clowes, headteacher of Hey with Zion Primary School in Oldham, asks what the driving forces behind the exodus could be.

At the age of 58, I am the oldest headteacher I know.

I feel I have a lot of productive years left in me; I am a better headteacher now than I was a few years ago and I am better remunerated than I was. I have more experience than I did, I have achieved more, read more and I make better informed decisions than I did a few years ago. I have learned from mistakes I have made and dealt with a wider range of situations than I had before.

I think I have more to offer now than I did a few years ago.

So why have so many headteachers who are older than me left?

A recent survey tells us that one in five headteachers has decided in the last year to bring forward their retirement. One in twelve say they will have finished by the end of next year.

Why are so many headteachers leaving, or planning to leave, ahead of time and the best part of a decade before their state pension arrives?

Attributes of a good headteacher do not fade by our mid to late fifties. We are not required to be athletes whose bodies we know will not perform as they did. I know I cannot run as fast as I could, I cannot play sports like I used to, and even late nights take more out of me than before. However, I don’t need to do those things to be a headteacher. My job requires wisdom, judgement, compassion, responding proportionately to what is unforeseen and planning thoughtfully so that not too many things do come unexpectedly. I need empathy, courage, and at times a refusal to bend to pressure. I need ability to deal dispassionately with the passions of the younger generations: staff, parents and children. And I am better at all of that than I used to be.

“Senators” are so called because of the Latin word “senex” [old man]. Hence the Ancient Romans looked to the older people [men in their patriarchal society] for running their republic. Look to the young for feats of physical prowess, but to the old for wisdom borne of experience.

We know it is difficult to recruit new teachers, and we know lots of recently qualified teachers quickly leave the profession. So why are we also haemorrhaging headteachers before their time?

Many will cite frequently changing Ofsted inspection frameworks which are seen by some as goalpost-moving exercises. Others will talk of high stakes exams where the threat of poor performance by the children or a “Requires Improvement” judgement for the school do not usually demand the sacking of the head but bring an imposition of an overwhelming level of bureaucracy and scrutiny.

The pension is okay, which we all see as justified and earned in exchange for being underpaid while in post. So headteachers leave the hassle and take the pension. Some supplement it with a bit of part-time education related work, others leave it all behind.

Ofsted and the Department for Education are not without blame. They have been culpable before. For example, they share some of the responsibility for schools narrowing their curriculum around assessment points with, historically, the perceived prejudging of schools based on these assessments. The current inspection framework rightly looks at more than exam scores. It demands a full and broad curriculum; but echoes of the old ways continue to ring out loudly with league tables based on English and Mathematics scores, and Ofsted data measures in English and Mathematics - not other subjects - are still compulsory on every school website.

Headteachers have never felt as busy as they do now. All the usual expectations are there, on top of which Covid management remains, and then there are the Ofsted research reviews. The way in which they have been released required a bit of improvement.

The principle of using research to drive curriculum improvement is wholeheartedly accepted and applauded throughout schools. For a long time, the excellent E.E.F. “Sutton Toolkit” has informed schools as to what practices have proved effective [quality of feedback, reading comprehension strategies, metacognition practices and so on] and what practices have not [changing the school uniform, streaming children and keeping children back a year if they fail an end of year exam].

Supplementing this with individual subject papers is a commendable idea, and it is good to know that while schools were dealing with the pandemic and inspections were not allowed for Covid safety reasons, Ofsted were doing something productive as they worked from home.

However, it is a shame that not all subjects have received attention: there has been nothing for Art and Design, for example, nor Computing, Design and Technology nor P.E. Why not?

There were some gems within the papers they released. Whether all stand the test of time remains to be seen, for there have been accusations from some quarters of selectivity in the Maths reviews, for example, a damaging claim if it is true, since research should inform practice rather than be selected to justify ideology.

However, the papers received from Ofsted have implied a need for speeding up the pace of change in schools right now.

Below is guidance received from Ofsted and DfE over the last few months:

Science [April 2021]

Religious Education [May 2021]

Mathematics [May 2021]

Languages [June 2021]

Geography [June 2021]

Music [July 2021]

History [July 2021]

Reading [July 2021]

This guidance is comprised of 457 pages with 1,452 references for further reading if we wish to explore these issues further. All of this has needed reading, digesting and thoughtful consideration of what adaptations need to be made in the light of the information. Such adaptations typically will need negotiating, fine tuning and resourcing, monitoring and evaluating the effectiveness of the implementation and impact.

Now, one of the things that primary schools have been working on over the last couple of years is the development of “subject leadership”. For example, pretty much every primary teacher now must be a head of department for a subject, the “resident expert” as we call ourselves. We are generalists really, but someone must be the leader of each subject so we each take a subject or so.

Myself, I take on the headship of Music. I am not a musician, I do not have a qualification beyond a Grade 3 piano exam a long time ago, but my record collection is okay and taking charge of Music gives me a chance to model to teachers in my school what I expect of them as subject leaders, and how we should all be flexible to meet the needs of the organisation.

So, it falls to me to make sure we understand for the “technical”, “constructive” and “expressive” interrelating pillars the review talks of and how “tacit”, “procedural” and “declarative” knowledge pertain to them. The responsibility also falls upon my shoulders to make sure that we do not undersell to our five-year-old pupils our understanding of “teleological and cyclic conceptions of temporal organisation of music”.

I also have to wrestle with the implications in our lessons of Ofsted’s pronouncement that they are at odds with Descartes and his view on the indivisibility of the mind. Helpfully they have referred me to the 1641 book so I can find out more about that if I want to. Amazon would even sell a copy which has since been translated from the original Latin.

I can leave our History subject leader to make sure we are covered for “substantive”, “disciplinary”, “generative”, “fingertip”, “layered”, “residue” and “chronological” knowledge and “hinterland information” in History; and the Language leader to make sure we are all comfortable with the concept of “collocation.”

Fortunately, I have an exceptional staff who have been with us for a number of years, and they are committed, talented and incredibly hard-working. We have a strong curriculum which keeps being improved and the children at my school will be okay. When Ofsted sent us their “Model Music Curriculum” last March, a kind of prototype for how they would like us to be organising what we teach in Music, I found the style of it very similar indeed to what we do. Where we differed was that they chose to introduce the children to Kate Bush while we chose J.S. Bach. I am happy with our choice.

I have also been around for a while, and I know that it is impossible to prioritise everything all at once. I know that staying loyal to the organisational goal, our “vision statement”, is the key.

“Within the love of God, we strive to do the best we can for ourselves and others,” is our vision statement and we are true to that. Our parents want their children to be safe, cared for, happy and taught to be literate, numerate and IT competent with a broad love of learning and good attitudes. We are providing that.

To steal from Kipling, I am keeping my head, while all around me, schools are losing their headteachers.

Our new Secretary of State for Education, Mr. Nadhim Zahawi, has made a quiet start and many in schools are happy with that. We do not want unnecessary change for the sake of it.

A question exists for him, though, around the numbers of headteachers currently seeking to leave their post: is this what he wants?

If so, why? And if not, what is he proposing to do about it?

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Authored By

Andrew Clowes
Headteacher at Hey With Zion Primary School
November 8th 2021, 11:03am

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