This report was commissioned by the National Education Union to help understand the experiences and perspectives of school leaders in the UK at a time when multiple socio-economic, financial, staffing and policy pressures are combining to make their work more challenging.
It is based on an online survey, completed by 387 leaders, and a small number of qualitative case studies.
The results confirm the findings of other studies: school leaders work very long hours, 57 hours per week on average. Weekly working hours are on average two hours longer than in 2019. For every category of activity tested in this survey (15), more leaders said they were spending more time on them compared with before the pandemic than said they were spending less time. Most (80 per cent) think their workload is unacceptable.
Most leaders (83 per cent) cannot find enough time for the strategic leadership aspects of their job. This is partly because of the inherent scale and nature of the role. School leaders spread their time across a wide range of roles and responsibilities, and the make-up of their roles can be very different in different contexts. School leaders in areas of high socio-economic deprivation, for example, reported spending more time on student interactions. Partly it is because of increasing pressures arising from a combination of additional need and staffing issues. When leaders were asked what gets in the way of strategic work, staff absence and shortages, behaviour and issues relating to safeguarding/social services/supporting families were the most commonly mentioned specific topics.
School leaders derive a lot of satisfaction from their jobs. Overwhelmingly, they said that the thing that gave them most satisfaction was working with children, as well as working with colleagues and supporting their development and the development of educational practice.
However, overall job satisfaction is not high. Only 37 per cent were “completely” or “mostly” satisfied with the job. Nearly a quarter were “completely” or “mostly” dissatisfied. Major sources of frustration relate to inadequate budget and staffing, as well as inadequate capacity in external agencies. The linked problem of too much work and too little time was also a major source of frustration, as was inspection and other accountability pressures.
A majority (57 per cent of deputy head teachers and 66 per cent of head teachers) said they had enough autonomy in their role, with no significant difference for those in academies versus other schools. For those who said they had insufficient autonomy, the most common constraints were cited as Ofsted expectations (63 per cent of these respondents), Ofsted judgement (41 per cent) and government policy (37 per cent) with parental expectations (34 per cent) also cited by over one third of respondents.
The biggest issues that are taking up more time since the onset of the pandemic in early 2020 are “supporting staff wellbeing and mental health”, “dealing with safeguarding and child protection issues” and “liaising with families and external organisations supporting pupil welfare”. Eighty per cent or more of respondents said they were spending more time on these than three years ago. There are some differences in the ways pressures are impacting in different contexts.
For example, budget management has become a more prominent part of primary leaders’ roles in the last three years, while for secondary leaders staff recruitment and pupil behaviour and attendance have become more time-consuming.
Amid a sense of working under extreme (and unnecessary) pressure, 68 per cent of leaders disagreed that their job was highly valued in society and 63 per cent that their pay was fair for the job they do. Similar proportions agreed that their job negatively affects their mental health and that the nature of the job made them wonder if they wanted to continue. These findings point to serious challenges for school leader retention and the pipeline of leaders coming through. Leaders in special schools and independent schools tended to reflect more positively on their jobs than leaders in state-funded mainstream schools. However, results are still very negative overall.
The survey explored what school leaders think they need support with and where they get support and guidance. Given that more than two-fifths (62 per cent) of leaders said they felt unprepared when they took on their role, the importance of ongoing support and continuing professional development cannot be understated.
The three issues which school leaders need most support with now are: knowledge and understanding of student mental health knowing how best to support children and families facing socio-economic difficulties knowledge and understanding of staff mental health.
School leaders find that the most useful support and guidance comes from other professionals with experience of school leadership. Formal coaching/mentoring is widely regarded as helpful but not widely used. Only about a quarter had done it in the last year. Other ways of learning from leaders in other schools (such as visits, discussions and networking) are also highly valued. Some organisations which could be supportive - departments for education, local authorities and some governing bodies – are not widely deemed to be so.
Support needs appear to differ for leaders in different types of school, as do sources of support and engagement in collaborative networks and professional development. Sources of support are also different across the UK, as are the challenges arising from policy reform. If school leaders are to be supported effectively, these differences need to be better understood.
Overall, these survey findings paint a bleak picture of the state of the education system. Some issues are intrinsic to the nature of the role: the juggling of multiple responsibilities and the need to be in ‘responsive mode’ during the school day. But they have become unmanageable, largely due to policy decisions.
School leaders said that more funding was the single biggest change needed.
They also called for more time, improvements in staffing and a red disruptive demands of inspection and accountability. The costs of inaction in response to these calls – for children and young people, for leaders and for the future profession – have been clearly spelled out in this report. They need to be kept just as firmly in mind as the costs and difficulties of making changes.