The headteachers paying the price of ‘failure’

Jun 24, 2014 by

As figures are revealed for the removal of school leaders in Kent, does it show a worrying national trend?

Stephen Lewis still cannot believe how he has come to be sitting at home, without a job, with his reputation in tatters. When Ofsted came last year to visit the school where he was headteacher it was supposed to have been a routine inspection. No one – not the staff, governors, parents or local authority – had expressed any concerns about standards at the secondary school and another “good with outstanding features” judgment was expected.

But instead, the school failed the inspection and was put into special measures. Lewis was forced out of his job.

He is one of many headteachers to have lost their jobs, or been forced out quietly, in Kent. More than 20 primary and secondary headteachers in the county have been removed from their jobs in the past two years and either suspended or put on “gardening leave” while their futures are decided following Ofsted inspections. It is believed, though not confirmed by any official statistics, that up to 40 others may have been encouraged to resign quietly.

It is a phenomenon that is being replicated around the country. Heads are being dismissed, leaving their careers ruined, says Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders. In the autumn term of last year alone, his union represented 140 members, many of whom had been ousted because of their school’s performance.

“When a school goes into special measures heads are, more often than not, dismissed these days,” Lightman says. “There is an expectation that things will change rapidly when school improvement simply cannot happen overnight.

“These people are not incompetent. There can be any number of reasons why a school is struggling. But a lot of heads just resign because they know what is coming if they don’t.”

The Kent figures were revealed after a Freedom of Information (FoI) request from the regional news network, Kent Online. Of the 21 headteachers removed, 15 were because of school performance, five on conduct grounds and one over an undisclosed issue. It is believed, though has not been confirmed, that many more, like Lewis, have been pressured to leave voluntarily. Nearly all (19) of the heads in the FoI figures were from primary schools.

In March, Education Guardian revealed Kent county council’s “Protocol” for what happens to a headteacher if their school receives a poor Ofsted report. The document clarified, at the request of heads in the county, what may happen if their school fails an inspection. This included dismissal for those who had been in post for two years or more, and the expectation that they would not be recommended for any more senior posts in the future.

The document sent shockwaves through the country’s school leaders. Heads’ organisations said there was a similar picture nationwide as local authorities wanted to be seen taking tough action in tackling underachievement.

Lewis (not his real name), knows only too well what it means to fail an inspection. In his 10 years in post he had turned around a secondary that had poor results and behaviour, and was half-empty, and turned it into a thriving, successful, oversubscribed school with some of the best results in the region.

“The problem was with our school data,” he explains. “We had made some adjustments to our curriculum to reflect the academic direction in which ministers wanted schools to move, with fewer vocational qualifications [such as BTec]and more GCSEs in academic subjects.

“But what this did was skew our results. Pupils who might have taken BTecs were now doing GCSEs and not performing as well because they were finding them harder. So our results last summer appeared to be worse than they actually were. It is data that matters in Ofsted inspections.

“We had had a challenging cohort of pupils the year before, and we were caught up in the GCSE English marking debacle, where students nationwide were awarded grades that were lower than expected because of grade boundary adjustments by exam boards. So it appeared that this was the second year that our results were below the national average and not improving.”

Lewis believes the inspection team arrived with the specific aim of finding evidence to back up the data and prove that this was a failing school. “Some of our best teachers were told on the first morning of the inspection that they were inadequate,” he says. “It was absolutely ludicrous. If things were so bad why weren’t we told sooner? Our school improvement team never voiced any concerns about our work and the direction in which the school was heading – which was resoundingly up.”

As it emerged that the school would fail the inspection, Lewis was summoned for a two-hour grilling by officials on what had gone wrong. “I told them nothing had gone wrong, that our data had to be seen in context and everyone knew this was a good school,” he says. “At no point was there any discussion about the role of the local authority and their school consultants in this. I was left to carry the can on my own.

“It was absolutely wretched. Someone from the authority could have supported me in so much as offering to work with me to sort out the problems. But it was clear they just wanted me out, and I would be pushed if I didn’t jump. The option was to ‘go with grace’ or to be put on formal capability procedures which may have resulted in dismissal within six weeks.”

Nigel Utton, a former primary headteacher and ex-chairman of the Kent Association of Head Teachers, left his role recently to become a consultant because of objections to current government policy and because “measuring perceived accountability has become more important than children’s well-being and education”. He is a campaigner for inclusion in schools. He says the figures for headteacher removals did not surprise him. “What is happening in Kent is a microcosm of what is going on all over the country,” he says. “The agenda is to get more schools to become academies by hook or crook. I believe that that is what is behind it. The constant moving of goalposts about what constitutes a good or failing school doesn’t help.”

Lightman says this culture of blame is affecting headteacher recruitment across the country, with fewer candidates seeking promotion. “Dismissal has become a default reaction to poor inspections and local authorities are under enormous pressure to be seen to be responding to underperformance,” he says.

“It is no surprise that fewer people are applying for vacancies in challenging schools when they see their colleagues losing their jobs, often after a period that is far too short to have brought about sustainable improvement.”

Patrick Leeson, Kent’s corporate director for education and young people’s services, says there is a higher level of expectation now, which demands all children succeed. He says Kent is acting no differently from other authorities.

“All schools must now be on a journey to being a ‘good’ school and this has created challenging levels of expectation,” he says. “We have to keep apace with these expectations as an education authority, and this makes it a very exacting job for heads who have to show improving outcomes.

“The challenge for us is to strengthen the ways in which we work, by getting struggling schools in partnerships and collaborations with more successful schools, putting in executive heads and getting consultants to work with struggling heads.”

He says the county has a system of support programmes for headteachers, which include mentoring and guidance from colleagues. “We are not short on leaders who want to come forward to help others succeed.”

But Lewis says this was not his experience: “I would have worked with anyone to help my school recover. But there was no professional dialogue whatsoever to allow that to happen.

“Instead they quickly installed an executive head. I found out about this when the announcement was made of her appointment and that I was being dismissed.

“The local authority was scared of being seen as weak. The new head has been given resources at her disposal that were never offered to me. I was just the scapegoat.”

by Education News
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via The headteachers paying the price of ‘failure’ | Education | The Guardian.

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