As a generation of teachers near the end of their careers the role of leadership development becomes an increasingly important one, as this issue of CPD Week explains

Dig a well before you are thirsty.
Chinese proverb

The ‘baby boomer’ generation of teachers (those born in the fifties) are retiring, and their offices in schools are being left empty; that’s the message of the latest annual digest of statistics from the General Teaching Council for England (GTCE). So what are we to do about a profession whose age profile is falling ever downwards? This week we take a look at some home-grown solutions.

Are schools doing their bit for leadership development?
The kind of number crunching done by “suits” in the various departments, organisations and quangos concerned with the world of education are not normally too much of a direct concern for those of us at grass roots level, who work with the children themselves. Usually their findings are processed for a political purpose, emerging later as some initiative or other.

However, those concerned with leading professional learning in schools are bound to have their interest sparked by the latest annual digest of statistics from the GTCE. It shows that the age profile of the profession is changing, with a significant shift downwards. We’ve suspected this before, and various surveys have confirmed it, but what does it actually mean? And what can we do about it?

The figures speak for themselves: there are now 2,000 more newly qualified teachers working in schools on this year’s census date (31 March 2008) than there were on last year’s (31 March 2007). There were also 11,000 fewer teachers aged 45-59 and 10,000 more teachers under the age of 45.

Keith Bartley, chief executive of the GTCE, has recognised the seriousness of the situation: ‘We are hearing that head teacher recruitment is at ‘crisis’ point, with growing vacancies in the state sector. Never before has it been so important that leadership and head teacher positions are made accessible and appealing to younger teachers. All teachers are leaders of learning and we need to ensure that confident, expert classroom practitioners can make the move into leadership positions early enough to prepare them for headship at an earlier age than before.’

Herein lies the problem… or ‘challenge’ if we are to be more charitable. There’s no getting around the fact that the ‘baby boomers’ are heading for retirement and there’s not a lot we can do to change that. The biggest implication for schools is the gap (gaping chasm?) they will leave in terms of experience and expertise and how best we might go about restoring those.

The cold hard truth of the matter is that we no longer have the luxury of being able to allow teachers to take time to develop their craft, and the necessary leadership skills required for the role of head teacher. This isn’t ideal by any stretch of the imagination. It’s virtually impossible to find research evidence on the positive benefits of being catapulted into a leadership role before being fully prepared and as psychologically ‘ready’ as you can be for that step.

Some ideas, for your consideration:

  • Taking a proactive approach with your school will help to ensure that you aren’t ‘stuck with the situation’ in years to come.
  • Consider discussing the issue with other professional learning leaders within your locality. Is this particularly a problem in your area? Are there potential solutions that you might usefully work on collaboratively?
  • Identify the ways in which professional learning is personalised in your school. This is what will help staff members to carve a path through their career in which their inherent and learned skills are truly developed and most likely to be utilised. It is this approach that might most successfully lead to career satisfaction, as well as the development of skills at an appropriate pace for the needs of both the profession and the individual.
  • Research courses which develop leadership skills in your locality. Explore the possibilities of ‘distance learning’ for staff in your school.
  • Look into the possibility of ‘buddying’ up potential school leaders, at any level, with leaders in your school and beyond. Work collaboratively with neighbouring schools on this.
  • Look at the ways in which people are currently ‘selected’ for the development of talents that they don’t necessarily recognise in themselves. Ideally the urge to develop leadership skills will emerge from the individual, but we all experience times when we cannot see for ourselves a potential that others may see within us. How is this handled in your school? That said, the profession needs to respect the fact that not all who start out as teachers see progression to school leadership as their ultimate goal.
  • Explore ways in which professional development in your school may work with the development of jobs and roles. For too long the profession has tried to fit people into roles. No, we will have to become wise about fitting roles to people and their skills, as it is this approach which has a greater potential for sustainability. A problem this big needs a flexible approach; something that school governors and employers should be grappling with right now.

There is no doubt that hanging an oversized job on an under-developed teacher will lead to disaster. The human cost of expecting too much too soon in a person’s career is far too great a risk in our profession. This can only mean one thing if we are to have the right people in our leadership positions: a far more important role for professional learning on the job, and a failsafe support system for those on whose shoulders the burden of school leadership may be resting sooner than we would like.

Find out more
Further information on the GTCE’s annual digest of statistics

This e-bulletin issue was first published in September 2008

About the author: Elizabeth Holmes qualified as a teacher at the Institute of Education, London and is the author of several books specialising in the areas of professional development and teacher well-being.