By Alex Atherton
There’s a scene in Sacha Baron Cohen’s film The Dictator when the lead character Aladeen (played by Baron Cohen) finds himself in exile. Whilst there he discovers all those he thought he had sent to their deaths via execution are still alive. There were some parallels between this and the first Heads Up conference held in Liverpool last week, run by James Pope’s InspirEDucate. I do not think I was alone in thinking that this type of audience was a very new experience.
Those in the room had a range of reasons for being there. Many had left headship and often it was because of one or more issues with their managers, governors, inspectors or something in between. Some had just had enough, had burned out or were on the cusp of doing so. Everyone had seen it happen to others and in some cases many others. Colleagues they once knew, had sat next to them in many meetings, perhaps knew a little socially and then one day, gone. Incommunicado. Out of the loop. Off limits. In some cases their chair was barely warm but the end of the conveyor belt had arrived and the drop was too deep to recover.
For some it was deeply personal, it had not happened to them but they had seen the effects first hand in someone close. Of those who had left headship there were few looking to get behind a headteacher’s desk again, and for me this was the most telling feature. Everyone who had done the job spoke fondly about it and much of their experiences, but it did not make a difference in considering whether to do it again. Those who were looking to get back in most commonly had a sense of unfinished business; they stopped before they had really got going.
If I could only choose one word to sum it up it would be catharsis. The emotion that poured out as many shared their stories of why they had come was fairly jaw dropping. We only heard one half of everyone’s story of course, but whatever the circumstances it felt like a stupendous waste of the combined experience in the room. There were some people there I could have talked to for hours. It seemed ridiculous that so many people in their professional prime felt they had lost interest, or confidence, or both.
The concerns some raised about discrimination were compelling. Only in a minority of these cases did people say they had been treated differently by their current employer because of who they were, but it was extremely common for them to say that the only interviews or posts they could get were the riskiest jobs that no one else wanted. If it was a highly sought after job, they did not expect to have a chance. It was either the edge of a glass cliff on a windy day or nothing at all.
Some themes emerged, not least from the many stories which boiled down to working in a situation where the interests of adults were put above the needs of students. The short term transformation demanded from some they worked for could only come at a cost that was too high in terms of one or more of morals, values and mental health. A lot talked about the need for support and well-being for those in post, but as one person put it so eloquently at what point did well-being become such a high priority? Why not change the job so finding solutions to well-being was not so important? This was emphasised as more and more people talked about what was happened to ‘prepare for the latest Ofsted framework’. The warm up ‘deep dives’, preparing for the ‘phone call itself’, the programme of learning walks. And so on.
The more the day went on the more it felt like the Ofsted rules may have changed but the game remains the same. Furthermore, when the rules change the game is played that much more intensely. “Some of the new reports are out today”, said someone. “Are they?” replied everyone who heard it simultaneously followed by a flurry of clicks to look at the new format, calculate time since that school’s last one and so on. Reverse engineering Ofsted algorithms is few headteachers’ favourite game, but it is one in which a large proportion engage and none more so that at the start of a new framework. Absolutely no one wished it was them. If anyone was half thinking about a return to headship at the start of the day, they had not been converted to applying sometime soon by the end. When people clicked on their phones, it was not on the TES jobs page.
The truth is that there must be hundreds, thousands even, of people in the same position. It would be interesting to know if ASCL, NAHT et al could come up with some figures. For each one of those there are others who know it could happen to them. All of this raised many questions. How can someone best return from exile? What might the role of unions be in supporting this? If you want to stay in what should you be thinking about? If you do not want to go back, what are your options? If you do want to go back how do you avoid standing out with a ‘damaged goods’ face at interview (the ‘one who did it before but it did not work out’)?
Most significantly, if we all came together to support those who would be great at it but will never apply, those who are in it but are clinging on and those who are no longer in headship what kind of voice would we have? The answer could be a powerful one. The consensus by the end of the day was that an element of how ‘the system’ operates in practice depends on silence in exile. If whistle blowing only damages those who blow the whistle, or if those who are burning out do not get help even when they ask (as two of many examples) then things will not change.
The last year has shown me there is life beyond headship, but not everyone is in it long enough to have built up the contacts on which I have depended. Heads Up can be the first step for those currently in exile, or can see it on the horizon, who need to see some hope.