Case Study: Local Authority Let Down

Being a headteacher can be the best job in the world, but it can also be soul-destroying. Sitting at home, on a September weekday for the first time in 25 years, I can actually appreciate how much of the latter my job had become last year. I needed to step away and do something different.

There wasn’t a specific point that made me step away from the job I had really enjoyed for 14 years but reflecting on something in Autumn 2019 brought home what my life had become.

My wife and I were waiting in a hospital ward for our daughter to come back from surgery. A nurse popped her head round the curtain, explained that there had been a few complications, but there was ‘nothing to worry about’, and it would be just be a bit longer before we would be able to see the patient.

So, as the curtain closed, we looked at each other, said something like ‘we’ll just have to wait then’.   Then, I got out my laptop to work on the school development plan and my wife started marking the bag full of books she’d brought.
What had our life come to? 8pm on a weeknight, our daughter was in a recovery room, and our first reaction was to fill the time with work… Worryingly it felt so normal.

I considered myself lucky too. I had a great team to work with, a supportive governing body, and a family that understood the demands. I had strategies I used, like exercise, journaling and meditation, to manage the mental pressure that is a constant in the role of headteacher. But all I did was work and do things to help me survive work.

Once the decision that life wasn’t working was made, weighing up what I should do next was hard. I told myself that if I could take the school, away from the local authority, away from OFSTED, then I could continue.

The positive impact we had on the lives of the children could have kept me going. The smiles on the gate, the buzz on the playground, giving out the personalised stickers for amazing work I got to see.

But it was the feeling of unfairness in the wider system, and the pressures that existing as a leader within it, that meant I needed a break.

A big part was the OFSTED inspection framework that hung constantly like the sword of Damocles over my head.

I’d been lucky – RI was the lowest rating we’d got, and we were still a good school. The reality of the lived experience under the framework is that some schools will always find it harder to reach the hoops set for all school. We had the two challenges of being in a pocket of deprivation in an otherwise leafy county and being a school that attracted children with specific needs, often encouraged by other schools who couldn’t meet those needs, another bone of contention. Put those together with a framework that is based on outcomes rather than provision and it just doesn’t seem like a level playing field.

Or a consistent one. We had five inspections in 14 years, and each one was different. Yes, the framework was different too, but it was the inspectors that walked through the door that made each so different. If felt such a lottery; we never knew if our ticket was going to be a lucky winning one or a ripped up losing slip.

I do understand accountability is important and schools do need to be inspected to ensure they are’s doing what they are meant to be doing. But if that system doesn’t seem fair, any judgment lacks credibility and the uncertainty of the process creates anxiety.

The local authority played its part too, or at least didn’t play its part. In recent years, support got less and less, and processes harder and harder to manage as the functions of finance, HR or school support got commissioned out and that work got more and more time consuming. This all meant frustrating time-consuming distractions from the job I should be doing. New computer systems which were a confusing mess, with lots of necessary ‘work-arounds’ hidden within a unfathomable manual, and where mistakes felt more likely, and higher and higher costs for less and less support. And where was the challenge for schools who thought inclusion was sending their children to us?

As someone who feels that Local Authorities could be great structures to support and challenge schools, mine felt like they had given up and wanted us to go and be an academy. And that didn’t feel fair.

In January, I decided I needed a break from Headship, I wanted a fresh challenge. I asked my shocked Chair of Governors to start the process to find my replacement, saying that I would offer an open-ended resignation, leaving when my replacement could start, to ensure continuity.

At the first time of advertising, they got a good shortlist and appointed someone for new new school year as lockdown started. I had hoped and assumed that I would find a role ready for September, but maybe due to Covid, any opportunities seem to have dried up and I find myself having time to reflect in September without that pressure that comes with starting a school year again.

I’d like to be a headteacher again in the future, to get back to that amazing role that can make such a difference to the lives of many children, but not yet. I’m hoping the education system will improve, it really has to, and I can go back into it.

I am missing work. I like the hard work and pressure that comes with leadership and ideally want to work in an area that makes a difference to the most vulnerable members of our society. Hopefully something will come up soon.

I’m not looking for an easy life, just one that feels fair.