School leaders voice widespread concerns on the State of Education

School leaders say they are overworked, disenchanted and unsure whether any political party is equipped to take education forward, according to a new annual State of Education report, published today (24th April) by The Key - an organisation that provides leadership and management support to schools.

The report features findings from a recent survey of 1,180 school leaders (including headteachers, deputy heads and school business managers). The results show that almost six in 10 (58.2%) are unsure which party is best equipped to improve the education system from 2015.

The past 12 months have seen widespread challenges for school leaders. Managing teachers’ workload (82.2%) was rated the most difficult challenge faced over the past year, ahead of implementing the removal of National Curriculum levels (75.3%), managing teachers’ morale (69.6%), preparing for Ofsted (63.8%) and teacher recruitment (62.6%).

When asked to select which of a range of factors would most improve the quality of education, fewer in-year statutory changes (45.2%) was the most often cited response, followed by reducing teacher workload (40.7%), increasing funding (35.3%) and improving the quality of teaching (27.3%).

Despite more than three-quarters (77.2%) of The Key’s school leaders saying they are dissatisfied with the Coalition Government’s performance on education, almost half (46.7%) believe that the quality of education in England’s schools has got better in the past five years. Just 12% of school leaders think the quality of education has got worse.

The results show that school leaders want to be more certain about what works: 99% think education reforms should be evaluated for their effectiveness, while 71.4% say that current systems for accessing and disseminating research are inadequate.

Talking about the findings, Fergal Roche, CEO of The Key, said:

 “School leaders are clearly telling us that they are fed up with the constant changes and are, unsurprisingly, disenchanted as they face continued challenges around tightening budgets, a shortage of places and a hefty workload. While there have been some positive reforms, the findings demonstrate the frustration that is being felt with politics across the board as school leaders call for less interference from Westminster.

“Frenetic change has been building up in the system for some years, starting well before 2010. The issue it seems is not always with the changes themselves - indeed our findings show school leaders have seen significant benefits from some of them - but with the sheer number of changes, which impacts on school leaders’ ability to get on with the job of improving outcomes for the children and young people in their schools.”

Other headline findings:

  • 85.0% of school leaders feel that morale in the teaching profession has got worse over the past five years.
  • More than nine in 10 (91.6%) feel their work/life balance could be improved, while the majority agree that their role has negatively impacted on their mental health (64.2%) and family life (77.6%).
  • More than half (53.8%) say they plan to leave their role in the next three years. 
  • Seven in 10 (70.3%) believe the pupil premium will have a positive impact on the quality of education over the next 18 months, and 50.6% think teaching school alliances will have a positive impact.
  • However, over three quarters (76.8%) say creating free schools would have a negative impact on the quality of education over the next 18 months. 
  • 55.8% oppose scrapping the National Curriculum: only 17.1% support its removal.
  • Eight in 10 (80.9%) school leaders support replacing Ofsted with a body independent of central government, and 79.8% back an expert panel taking over responsibility for setting the National Curriculum from the Department for Education (DfE).
  • Almost nine out of 10 (87.8%) school leaders are in support of providing more opportunities and support for pupils to follow vocational pathways. Two out of five (40.3%) school leaders ‘strongly support’ this policy.
  • Under one in 10 (6.7%) of the school leaders surveyed believe that Conservatives are best placed to improve the education system, while one in five (20.5%) think the Labour party is best equipped to do so. 
  • Three quarters (75.1%) of school leaders think teaching is less attractive to new entrants now than five years ago.

Dr Eilis Field, headteacher of St John Fisher Catholic Voluntary Academy in Derby, explains: 

“There is haphazardness when it comes to change in education. Change is introduced not only as each governing party comes to office, but also from minister to minister. Having been a head in three schools, I know that what works in one school will not necessarily work in another. 

“Rather than sweeping systems and schemes, I’d rather changes were based on sound pedagogy. Headteachers have to be held to account, but I would like to see an independent group of people from a pedagogical background in control of education. This would provide some stability and good practice based on sound pedagogical reasoning, regardless of which minister or party comes into power.”

 Kate Atkins, headteacher of Rosendale Primary School in Lambeth, said: 

“One of the most positive recent changes in education is the insistence from school leaders that educational reforms should be evidence-based. This represents a growing professionalism within education as schools work co-operatively with each other and in partnership with organisations such as the Education Endowment Foundation. Our next challenge is to make sure that this growing body of research finds its way into all schools and starts to inform classroom practice.”

John Tomsett, headteacher and co-founder of the Headteachers’ Roundtable, said about the report:

“It is clear from the responses that school leaders find government interference a huge distraction. The fact that the quality of teaching was rated only fourth most important when it comes to improving education is probably the most striking - and the most disturbing - aspect of the data.

 “The quality of teaching has to be the single most important factor when it comes to improving education. If we are funded well enough to run our schools so that we can recruit and retain the best teachers in the world, then we will have the best education system in the world. It is that simple.”

Roche continued: 

“Almost two thirds of school leaders say their role is bad for their mental health, and more than half are planning to be out of their role within three years. These are deeply concerning figures that should make us collectively sit up, take notice and consider what should happen next as part of a long-term plan for the sector.

“The good news is that the majority of school leaders feel the quality of education has improved and there is a real thirst in the sector to improve the quality of teaching and learning by drawing on ‘what works’, research and evidence.

“And let’s remember: schools are the powerhouse of our economy, developing the skills, the attitude and the character we need to be competitive. It’s imperative that whoever comes to power in the coming weeks recognises the need to work collaboratively with school leaders to address their concerns and empower our schools to provide the best education possible for the children and young people they serve.”

The State of Education survey sought to tackle the big issues facing our education system today using school leaders’ views on education policies, the challenges facing them, the impact of statutory changes and responsibility within schools, and what would most improve education.

To download The Key’s State of Education report click here.

For more information, please contact Jessica Bull on 0333 320 7687/ jessica.bull@thekeysupport.com

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