Leaving a role with which we have emotional and spiritual attachments can be a very difficult decision to make, yet one with promising benefits for yourself and for the Madrassah you work in.
But when is a right time to move on and what are the upsides and the downsides to such a move? The excellent article below explains.
Teachers and school leaders can spend their whole careers in a single setting, but Jarlath O’Brien argues that change is integral to professional development – and is better for schools and students.
I was asked by a fellow headteacher recently: “Do you think you’ll ever take on another headship?” I found the question surprising because I’m 41. If the answer to the question was “no”, it meant I was committing myself (perhaps in both senses of the word) to a further 26 years in the school for which I’ve already been headteacher for five. This is not something that I think would be healthy for my school, or me for that matter.
I was clear with the school’s governors at interview that I would commit to the school for a minimum of five years, but that there was no way I would be retiring there. But that question made me think: was that the right thing to do? Is that the right attitude to have?
Leaders – and teachers generally – tend to be split on the matter of remaining in post for a significant period of time because there are clear pros and cons, whichever choice you end up making.
Long-standing leaders can bring stability and continuity to their school. Their continued presence can be a reassurance for the staff, students, governors and parents. Indeed, it’s entirely possible that some of those long-standing leaders will have taught some of the parents when they were students at the same school.
Frequent changes of leaders can be disruptive to schools. It unnerves staff and parents as they can be initially unsure about what stays and what goes – or who, more importantly. For staff, it can mean changes to working practices that they are comfortable with. Like or loathe the previous leader, at least you knew where you stood. We don’t tend to like change.
It is also more difficult, more costly and riskier to find a new leader, especially a headteacher, than to retain an existing one in the current recruitment climate.
There are, however, significant downsides to remaining in the same school in a single setting, in my view.
There’s a danger of the development of a feeling of ownership about the role or school. Carwarden House is not my school. I am but the custodian for a short period and the moment I begin to feel that the school is mine is the moment that I will write my letter of resignation.
Also, while there are undoubtedly leaders in post for long periods who are constantly learning and evolving, research shows that headteachers’ learning and engagement can slow after a time.
A research study in 2008 from the National College of School Leadership (now the National College for Teaching and Leadership), which looked at the school leadership labour market, noted that the average tenure of a headteacher was six to seven years.
They found that headteachers became aware of a “sea change around the four-to-five year mark with a transition from ‘doing headship’ to ‘being the head’ ”.
This certainly chimes with my own experiences of headship: five years in, and I’m only now really beginning to feel like I know what I’m doing.
The study found good evidence of a deceleration in leadership development in which “longer-serving heads are more prone to the growth of a plateau effect or ‘sell-by date’, with a decline in effectiveness after seven years”.
While no one could seriously expect leaders to develop at a strictly linear rate throughout their career, and a deceleration does not mean incompetence, the study quotes the “long-held view” in a paper by Peter Mortimore et al, titled School Matters: the Junior Years, “that heads who are three to seven years in post are associated with the most effective schools”.
When should you move?
Herein lies the tension. I’ve stated above that I’m beginning to feel like I know what I’m doing. That’s a bit flippant, but what it really means is that I have a developing sense of security about my ability to do the job. In the early days I learned fast, and more recently there is a feeling of having earned my spurs and now is the time to enjoy it.
Perhaps we get to a point when we become concerned that what works for us in our current school won’t work somewhere else (it probably won’t) and that if we move on, we’ll feel like we’re going to have to start again from scratch. That may seem frightening, but I think it is exactly what we should do.
I contrast this with the model adopted in the armed forces.
Granted, there are structural differences that make adoption of some of their principles problematic, such as the centrally controlled deployment of officers, but you won’t find a lieutenant colonel commanding a battalion or a captain in command of an aircraft carrier for a solid 25 years. The armed-forces model is predicated on leaders being in place for periods of two or three years. Leaders know that their time is limited so they are expected to learn very quickly, partly in preparation for their next role. It’s deeply embedded leadership development. It also deliberately prevents leaders from developing a sense of ownership. Being a member of the regiment, for example, is crucial, but no one owns the regiment.
While we will never copy the system of deploying leaders in the armed forces (we should take a serious look at their leadership development models, though, as they make ours look very poor indeed), I suspect multi-academy trusts (MATs) will change the labour market around leaders in the next few years.
I foresee many more MATs adopting a central deployment model, whereby the operational needs of the MAT mean that headteachers, other senior leaders and middle leaders (and teachers of shortage subjects, too, for that matter) are deployed or seconded to other schools in the MAT where they are most needed. I’ll wager, also, that the average tenure of a headteacher in a MAT will be less than the average of all schools.
Not just leaders
But my argument is not just about leadership. All teachers at all levels need to consider how long they should stay in post.
On a sunny day in 2005, I had a crucial conversation with a colleague on the school playing field while we were on duty. Mark looked miserable and I asked him what was wrong. He replied that he’d had enough of working at our school. He was a highly experienced teacher in a shortage subject and a middle leader to boot. I encouraged him to look elsewhere as he would be snapped up very quickly.
“I can’t. Everyone knows and respects me here. I can’t move on. I’ll have to establish myself with the kids and the staff all over again.”
“How many years to retirement, Mark?”
“Great. Are you really going to get up every day for the next 15 years, dreading coming to work here?”
This is the worst possible situation to be in and needs to be avoided at all costs. There is much for teachers to gain by moving schools, – many of the reasons are the same as those for school leaders – and if those teachers are seeking promotion, the reasons become even more compelling.
Good governing bodies have open conversations with their headteachers about succession planning and good headteachers have the same discussions with their staff.
As our deputy headteacher says to me: “I do want to be a headteacher. I just want to be headteacher here.” Message received and understood, Alex.
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