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Stressed headteachers need support to stay in role

The Government should offer more support to overwhelmed headteachers to address a crisis in the nation’s schools, according to a new report.

Women holding head in hands while sat at workstation

Researchers at Leeds Beckett University (LBU) evaluated a year-long project by Integrity Coaching that provided one-to-one support for heads.

They found the coaching programme helped heads cope with their increasingly demanding roles, which were having a significant effect on their wellbeing, work-life balance and capacity to drive school improvement.

Principal researcher Professor Rachel Lofthouse, from the university’s Carnegie School of Education, said: “Headteachers give so much of themselves to support teachers and to make a positive impact on children and young people, and yet they experience some of the highest levels of stress in the system.

“At a time when the challenges in the education system are becoming acute, it is essential that we find approaches which support school leaders and allow them to contribute to sustainable school cultures.

“This research demonstrates that specialist coaching can make a real difference in the professional and personal lives of headteachers.”

The new report, Sustaining a Vital Profession, is the first of its kind to explore the relationship between coaching, wellbeing and leadership effectiveness amongst senior school leaders.

Viv Grant, Director of Integrity Coaching said: “We have now reached a point in the wellbeing debate where we must recognise that the personal and professional development of headteachers go side by side.

“Too many good headteachers either leave the profession early or burnout because the needs of the person in the role are ignored.

“Coaching is an essential life-support system for our school leaders and must be recognised as such, if we are to enable more of our heads to stay in the profession for the long haul.”

The Headteacher Coaching Programme, funded by the National Education Union (NEU), has run for the last three years.

The latest year-long programme involved 39 head teachers from across the country, ranging from new heads to those with more than 15 years’ experience in their leadership role.

CollectivED, a research and practice centre at LBU, was commissioned by the NEU to undertake an evaluation of the most recent year-long programme.

During interviews, focus groups and in questionnaires to evaluate the coaching programme, some heads described their roles as “difficult”, “turbulent”, “lonely” and “isolated”.

Demands of their role included complexity in terms of dealing with their pupils, their staff and the wider community, pressures of education watchdog Ofsted and making difficult financial decisions at a time of diminishing school budgets.

The heads said they faced new challenges each year regardless of how experienced they were in the role. Dealing with specific challenges and complexities associated with the role had a significant impact on their resilience, wellbeing and work/life balance. This coaching programme provided a means to support headteachers both personally and professionally.

Commenting on the coaching programme, one head said: “I am more emotionally resilient and can cope with the major decisions and issues that daily come my way.”

Another said: “The programme has given me confidence and enhanced clarity about my own vision for leadership, and I have developed an authentic leadership persona and identity.”

The evaluation report noted:

  • Coaching also helped to address the feelings of isolation commonly felt by headteachers. These gains had a reciprocal benefit in managing the demands of the job and reducing the 'erosion of resilience’.
  • Coaching of headteachers has the potential to help maintain sustainability in the school workforce.
  • There is evidence that this coaching programme had a positive impact on retention for headteachers at risk of leaving.

The report’s recommendations include:

  • The DfE is recommended to better understand the nature of the challenges faced by headteachers (beyond workload) and identify ways that the DfE can reduce these.
  • Draw on this research into headteacher coaching and other evidence to develop policy to support retention and efficacy of headteachers which includes an offer of professional, external coaching.
  • Support the sector to develop a specific professional organisational code of ethics for coaching in education.

The coaching involved six two-hour coaching sessions for each headteacher. As a result of the programme, there was a positive impact on headteachers’ self-belief and confidence, and coaching helped them to place greater priority on their physical health.

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