The role of a primary headteacher is complex: as well as managing the day-to-day operations of a school, they manage the teachers and other education staff below them, deal with safeguarding and pastoral issues, set school policy, and are ultimately responsible for all pupils’ academic achievement.
But how much classroom experience do you need to do the job well? Is extensive classroom experience of every key stage a must?
In January 2022 I contributed to this debate in an article in the Times Educational Supplement magazine, arguing in favour of a wide teaching experience as a qualification for leadership amongst headteachers.
With a tight word count and being one of two voices in the article, it’s important to be able to add the nuance in this blog post which may be lost in the original article: is experience of teaching in all key stages absolutely essential? No. Does it trump people skills, leadership expertise and other experience? No. But is it highly desirable, is it something for which we should strive, and is it an ingredient which makes for better qualified and better positioned headteachers? In my view, absolutely.
The extract which I wrote to make my case in favour of wide teaching experience for headteachers can be seen below ⬇️
The demands of school leadership are high, but the bar is set low.
At the risk of upsetting colleagues, I know of many recent leadership appointees who have experienced just one school, year group or key stage. Some have only been teaching for a few years. Perhaps this is just a sign of our times, but for our children’s sake, we must do better. In my view, experience across all key stages is essential for primary headship.
I’ve worked in a pre-school nursery, a school nursery, reception, key stage 1 and key stage 2. I’ve been deputy headteacher in an infant school, a junior school and in two primary schools. I’ve had my own classes across all key stages. All of this experience gives me credibility: a hugely important (and sometimes overlooked) qualification for leadership.
There is a distinct difference between leadership and management. Operational management is one thing, but leading a team involves setting a vision, charting a course and empowering people to reach for the stars. Without the credibility of having walked the walk yourself, leadership can become very challenging.
Today I’m an executive headteacher across two schools, and in both, teachers and middle leaders know they can come to me with specific questions and problems about their key stage, and I’ll be able to support them. I understand the demands of each role in a way those with lesser experience do not.
Recently, a teacher came to me with concerns about his class size: it is larger than he has dealt with before, and he was finding it challenging. I supported him with proven strategies and suggestions around behaviour dynamics, classroom layout and ideas to manage his workload. The teacher knew that I’d been in that situation before, and so my solutions were credible.
Even with all of my classroom experience, I wasn’t fully prepared for the realities of a role requiring vastly different levels of accountability, decision-making and leadership skills. However, without it, I dread to think about what kind of failures I would now be responsible for.
There is a move towards a different model of leadership in education: CEOs of trusts and academies wield large power and influence in leadership positions but do not necessarily come from a background of education-sector experience.
The assumption that this can be done is made too easily. The leadership of schools should be rooted in deep pedagogical ideology, experience and understanding. Good school leaders are good educators, and that credibility comes from a proven track record.