Quarter of academy school heads changing per year – could signal leadership crisis

  • Options limited for schools struggling to attract new head

Schools could soon face a leadership recruitment crisis, with over a quarter (26%) of academies seeing their heads depart in the last academic year, according to our research.

Our study of a sample of academies and free schools found that the turnover of heads was slightly higher at secondary schools; 32% of secondary school heads had left during the 2013/14 academic year.  Additionally 12% of all schools had seen the departure of their school business manager in the last year.

We state that while some of the turnover is due to retirement, a tougher Ofsted inspection regime may be encouraging more governing boards to remove existing heads, and discouraging candidates from applying to fill vacant posts.

For example, a trial of ‘no notice’ Ofsted inspections resulted in the rating of 23 of the 40 schools assessed being downgraded.   The Chief Inspector of Schools, Sir Michael Wilshaw has also criticised the leadership of secondary schools in particular, saying that they were not improving as fast as primary schools.  In 2013/14 Ofsted inspectors found that 84% of primary schools had leadership judged “good or outstanding” compared to just 77% of secondary schools.

Comments Allan Hickie, Partner and Chairman of our national academies group, “We have been hearing anecdotally that there is a high turnover of head teachers, and also that making replacements is proving highly challenging.  With as many as 1 in 4 having to replace their heads in the last academic year, that is not surprising.”

“Both the extra vacancies, and the recruitment difficulties seem to be influenced by the more demanding Ofsted inspection regime, and more challenging league table criteria that check what ‘added value’ a school is delivering based in its intake, rather than looking at results alone.  Where academies have been downgraded by Ofsted, there is huge pressure to replace the leadership team.”

We add that the recent Government proposal to cut teachers’ workloads by banning changes to Ofsted’s inspection criteria mid-year, and giving more notice of changes to qualifications, was an acknowledgement of the pressures that schools’ leadership teams are under.

Allan continues: “head teachers and school governing boards will be relieved that the Government is setting more manageable timetables for major changes.  However, it is going take some time for prospective candidates to feel reassured that what they are expected to achieve can realistically be delivered.”

We add that 27% of academies had made a compensation or severance payment to at least one departing staff member in the last academic year 24% of academies had made an individual compensation payment of between £30,000 to £50,000, and 8% had paid out more than £75,000 in total, illustrating the additional costs of high turnover of senior staff.

Options limited for schools struggling to attract new head

We state that current budgetary constraints limit schools’ ability to offer a more competitive salary in order to attract a new head teacher.  Staff costs already account for around 70% of academies’ expenditure, a proportion that may be set to rise due to change in National Insurance rules and pension arrangements that will mean a 3.4% increase in the rate of schools’ Employers’ National Insurance contributions, and a 16.3% increase in pension costs.

It adds that the growth in multi-academy trusts is partly in response to recruitment problems at a senior level.  Multi-academy trusts are sometimes established, and often expanded, following the departure of a head teacher from a school that is deemed to be failing.  Arrangements are then made to transfer the school to the overall leadership of a head at an ‘Outstanding’ school, with the ‘local’ governing board retaining some responsibility and control.

Explains Allan:  “Typically employers respond to a shortage of talent in the marketplace by offering a more competitive salary – but schools’ have very limited scope to do that at the moment.  Even if the school can afford it, the new accounting rules for academies will mean even more disclosure on remuneration, so some candidates may see a downside to above-average pay.”

“We’ve seen many examples where a failing governing body is replaced by an interim executive board, often involving staff and trustees from a local high performing school. This often leads to a formal relationship between the academies through a multi-academy trust. This is not an easy option though.  There is often resistance from parents concerned that the school’s ethos will change – and it does mean a potential loss of autonomy for the governors and management of the ‘weaker’ school.”