Anne Clarke explores the role of the headteacher and asks: ‘Is the notion of a headteacher an out-of-date concept?’

The role of the headteacher is extremely complex, encompassing a wide range of responsibilities. As we develop into an ever more litigious society, it could be argued that the responsibilities have become too onerous – hence the large number of unfilled headteacher vacancies.

We expect our heads, under the auspices of the governing body, to be experts in financial matters; to handle complex personnel issues; to ensure that an appropriate curriculum is in place for the pupils and to monitor teaching and learning. We also expect them to ensure that the school environment is both disciplined and safe; to strive for ever-improving examination results; to liaise with parents and all other stakeholders; and to be accountable to the LEA, the DfES and, of course, Ofsted. Using the title ‘headteacher’ suggests to me that we also expect our heads to teach and this is a conundrum with which school leaders have to battle.

When I became a headteacher 15 years ago, I thought that I should teach. I had always taught, so why should I change the habit of a lifetime? At the interview for my first headship the question was posed, ‘If you are successful in gaining this position, will you teach?’ I promptly replied in the affirmative, only to be met with the less than enthusiastic response from the director of education: ‘You will make a very expensive classroom teacher then!’

Immediately I thought I had blown the interview. However, I was appointed to the post, and yet, within a week, the school’s adviser came into school to tell me that the director recommended that I did not teach as my role was running the school, not teaching. I chose to ignore this advice, believing that I was part of a team of staff and should stand beside them and teach.

I am not suggesting for one minute that this is a correct assumption, it just happened to be the view that I held at the time. I also ensured that I spent a couple of lessons per week observing my colleagues’ teaching, so that I could monitor the teaching and learning taking place within the school. I also believed that these lesson observations:

  • helped me to get to know the staff
  • saw me working alongside the pupils
  • enabled me to keep abreast of the curriculum outside my own specialism.

Fifteen years into headship, do I still hold these same views? I have had plenty of time to contemplate the role and what it entails, but in this ever-changing world of education, there is not one hard and fast rule. Perhaps one of the joys of being a headteacher is that you can put your own stamp on the role.

In thinking about whether or not it is part of the head’s role to teach, it is necessary to decide what the priorities of the role are and to say whether or not teaching should be one of these priorities.

The views of staff

I have mentioned some of the responsibilities of the role as laid out in any job description for a headteacher post, but I wondered what school staff view as the post’s main criteria. In order to find out, I sent a questionnaire to all the staff, both teaching and non-teaching, and simply set the following two questions:

  1. If you were appointed to the post of headteacher, what would you think your prime function was?
  2. Would you teach?  And if the answer is ‘Yes’, please give one reason why.

I kept the questionnaire brief in the hope of soliciting a good response. I received 63 responses, which is about a 50% return.

When it came to the prime function of headship, I was impressed with the depth of some of the answers. At my school, we encourage staff to develop their careers and engage in CPD. It was clear from the staff’s responses that this has paid off because they had thought about leadership, what it entails and the impact that heads can have on their schools.

‘Superhuman’ should teach?

In the National Professional Qualification for Headship (NPQH) programme, vision and strategic leadership are emphasised, so it is encouraging to see staff giving them a high profile. I was also pleased to see pupils’ learning and teachers’ teaching given a high priority. Naturally, staff feel that heads need to be mindful of the welfare of staff. It has been said that ‘teachers are there for the pupils, and that heads are there for the teachers’ – a maxim I often quote, when emphasising to staff that I am available for them whenever needed.

I noted working with the community as important, as the extended schools agenda rolls out. Finally, the point about linking teaching and support staff is important as, with workforce reform, maintaining a good relationship between teachers and non-teachers is vital.

One might expect that the superhuman, who was going to fulfil all of the above, could not be expected to teach as well. On the contrary, the majority of staff who returned the questionnaire, no matter how demanding they had been of the head, required them to teach – unlike my director of education all those years ago!

Staff acknowledged that heads have a heavy workload, so why did they not wish to lighten the burden and relieve them of teaching? Obviously, they thought it important that heads teach and the reasons for this can be summarised as follows:

  • to be in touch with the dynamics of the classroom
  • to retain an understanding of how initiatives work in the classroom
  • to be leading a staff where everyone is involved
  • to maintain an awareness of what teaching involves
  • to meet the children in the classroom
  • to keep in touch with your roots as a teacher
  • for enjoyment!
  • because staff would appreciate it
  • pupils need to know you are a teacher
  • to discover the problems experienced by teachers, ie the pressures of the job and the challenging nature of pupils.

The only member of staff in the school who has been a head is the head, so it is difficult for others to understand the nature of the role and its demands, and so to assume that heads have the time to teach properly. It is to the credit of some heads that they do. They make it a priority and still enjoy it.

However, many heads I have spoken to on this subject say that they often fail to get to lessons because they get called away to deal with a crisis. New heads will tell me that they started off with the notion that they could find time to teach, but have had to give it up as they felt they could not devote an adequate amount of time to it. It is doing the pupils a disservice if they are not getting the best deal.

A suitable alternative to teaching

I would suggest that heads should only teach if they can make it a priority and not keep having to have lessons covered as other things intervene. However, teaching and learning is at the heart of any school, so heads need to know what is happening in every classroom in the school. This is of particular importance with the new Ofsted regime and the emphasis on self-evaluation.

As an alternative to teaching oneself, I would suggest having a programme of regular classroom visits. As already mentioned, I have done this ever since I became a head and find it the most rewarding part of my job. I visit two lessons a week, by prior arrangement with the member of staff, and give a feedback on the lesson, following Ofsted criteria, as agreed by the staff. In this way I can fulfil all the points as outlined above, which staff seem to suggest are only possible by teaching oneself. In fact I would argue that observing others teach has the added benefits of:

  • keeping you in touch with every area of the curriculum
  • enabling you to meet more pupils in the classroom than you would if you only taught the same groups every week
  • and involving you in a dialogue with staff about teaching and learning, ie their prime role.

In our last Ofsted inspection (November 2004), the inspectors accepted that these lesson visits were useful and ensured that ‘the head has a clear understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of the teaching within the school’. This has to be one of the vital functions of headship. I would offer this as an alternative to teaching, but acknowledge that this is a personal opinion. I would not want for one moment to suggest that heads who can find the time and commitment to teach should give it up. It is all grist to their mill, and I am sure that staff and pupils do appreciate it.

Why heads should not teach

The staff at my school who thought that heads should not teach put forward the following reasons:

  • the job is demanding enough and teaching a few lessons would detract from other areas
  • heads can get a much better feel for what is going on in the classroom and how demands change by visiting lessons, doing ‘cover’ and taking time to listen to student councils
  • a managing director in industry would not be expected to do all the tasks of the staff they employ, so why should we demand this of our heads, when the role of headship is complex enough?

I am sure many heads would agree with these points.

I came into headship believing that I should teach. Do I still hold that view, or have I sold out to those who appointed me to my first headship? I did, in fact, make teaching a priority of my role up until a couple of years ago when I also became an executive head. I realised that I could not be head of two schools and still teach.

However, I did feel guilty about this. Although I have put forward a cogent argument for not teaching and offered a good alternative, I still feel I ought to do some teaching, albeit only a little. As the period of being involved in two schools is over, rightly or wrongly, I intend to do some teaching next year.

An outdated concept?

Experienced headteacher colleagues can say to me with full conviction that they are no longer teachers but leaders of teaching. I could not agree more, so why do I feel guilty if I am not seen scurrying to a classroom carrying 30 exercise books?

One answer could be age. As an experienced member of the profession, I still hang on to unenlightened views. Maybe the fact that we still use the title ‘headteacher’ in our profession is the problem. Perhaps it is time we came up with an alternative to relieve heads of any guilt they might feel if they are not wielding their interactive whiteboard marker.

We do not call leaders of the retail industry ‘senior shop assistants’, suggesting that they should do one day a week on the shop floor. Perhaps we should use the title ‘principal’ or some suitable alternative. It is not for me to say. I can only describe the vision and feelings that the title ‘headteacher’ conjures up and suggest that it is perhaps an outdated term.