Lost Leaders (the sequel) by Helena Marsh @helenamarsh81

It has been a week marked by political leaders stepping down from office. The Prime Minister has officially ended her tenure and the short-lived leader of the Change UK party quit her leadership role and the party. Both women, arguably, had an impossible job to do resulting in their decisions to resign.

Somewhat more concerning is the proliferation of school leaders stepping away from headship for similar reasons. Head teacher Roundtable colleagues leaving executive leadership roles have expressed frustration and anger about the impossibility of having to navigate a flawed inspection system, be responsible for ameliorating society’s ills and staffing their schools on a shoestring budget.

The toxic triangle of insufficient funding, inhumane accountability measures and a recruitment and retention crisis is taking its toll on our leaders.

Amongst the high profile departures, similarly passionate and accomplished professionals are walking away from headship and SLT roles this term having resigned in recent weeks due to untenable and unethical leadership expectations.

James Pope’s key note at this year’s HTRT summit ‘Where’s your head at?’ provided a sobering and salutary reflection on the negative personal impact that impossible professional demands are having on school leaders. The root causes of the current crisis are not just affecting shortage subjects, they are eroding every level of the profession.

Despite the doom, I remain optimistic.

I am presenting on the subject of hopeful leadership at the Cambridgeshire Festival of Education* this weekend. The substance of my workshop, which I shared at the HTRT Summit, ‘Birds of a Feather: Being flamingos of hope not lemmings of despair’ involves the importance of creating a positive school culture, leading with hope, not fear and using constructive, professional networks to achieve this. My head teacher colleagues and fellow festival organisers, Rae Snape and Adrian Kidd, epitomise this approach in spades.

However, it is important to acknowledge that channelling reservoirs of hope has become trickier in recent times. As Mary Myatt asserts in ‘Hopeful Schools’, while collective optimism for our children, staff, communities and future of the teaching profession is important, as is a healthy dose of realism to tackle the challenges that we face.

The education sector needs more than positive attitudes from school leaders to address its current issues: it needs a proper and decent investment of finance and professional trust.

Fundamentally, schools’ basic, unmet needs to be addressed, as per Maslow’s hierarchy. We need sufficient resources and an accountability system that allows staff to feel safe and valued. As with students, we need colleagues to thrive, not merely operate in survival mode. Only when simple human requirements are met can we expect the profession to flourish and reasonably enable our children to do the same.

Allowing systematic deprivation while blaming schools for failing to close rapidly expanding societal gaps has understandably led to a feeling of vulnerability and desperation and has fuelled some unscrupulous practices.

School leaders have become the scapegoats for poor education policy and insufficient funding. Unless we address the symptoms, we’ll continue to witness and accept a loss of talent and expertise.

In addition to those leaders lost as a result of crude, cliff-edge accountability, disappearing after or in anticipation of poor inspection outcomes or results, or through redundancy processes in response to declining budgets, there will be those that opt out of impossible leadership conditions. In place of the ordeal of leading a state school there will be those that: choose early retirement; choose to work overseas; choose the independent sector; choose higher education; choose a charity role; choose corporate employment; choose consultancy; choose a career break; choose health and wellbeing; choose life. Jill Berry’s blog ‘Lost Leaders’, which served as a catalyst for the inception of WomenEd in 2015 highlights the waste of leadership talent and potential as a result of systematic, institutional barriers:

“I have…known women I think of as the ‘lost leaders’, those who could have been exceptional leaders and role models but who, for a variety of reasons, didn’t fulfil their leadership potential. And this has made me thoughtful. Are there acceptable, and also unacceptable, reasons why this happens?”

In the present climate it is not solely capable female in their 30s that we are losing as leaders from the profession, it is experienced leaders of both sexes and all ages.

Whoever is responsible for leading our country and education policy needs to show their commitment through hard cash, not soundbites and empty promises, demonstrate an acceptance of a broken system and a means to repair and nurture it.

Collective movements such as HTRT, WorthLess? and WomenEd are examples of our ability to agitate relentlessly and reasonably as a community of professionals.

School leaders have the collective capacity and capability to influence and enact change.

A WomenEd catchphrase coined at the first unconference ‘What would Obama do?’ reflects a need to look beyond the minutiae and overwhelming dread of a problem and to be ambitious about the solution. Perhaps a somewhat outdated political reference now, unfortunately, but I think that we can still learn from the ex USA president’s audacious optimism and can-do leadership approach.

School leaders need to flock together, not tweet into divisive echo chambers, in order to demand more for our students, our staff, ourselves and state education as a whole.

* CambsEdFest is sold out but flamingos of hope can still connect by watching the YouTube live-stream and joining the conversation on twitter #flamingle19.

Helena Marsh is Executive Principal of Linton Village College and Chilford Hundred Education Trust (CHET) in Cambridgeshire and is a member of the core group of Heads’ Roundtable.

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