August 2017


  • Leading thoughts
    Geoff Barton reflects on his journey meeting hundreds of school and college leaders since taking up the role of ASCL General Secretary three months ago. More
  • School heroes
    Character and resilience education helps pupils to develop important life skills says former Headteacher Ben Slade. Here he highlights a new programme being delivered by ex-service personnel in schools. More
  • Be prepared
    Recent incidents in Manchester and London affected everyone, including many of our own pupils and staff, says Headteacher Richard Sheriff. Here he highlights what leaders can do to prepare for such instances. More
  • Sense and accountability
    ASCL’s Primary and Governance Specialist Julie McCulloch on the current problems with primary assessment and the launch of a new ASCL-led independent review of primary accountability. More
  • Keeping your head
    Reassuringly, new research from the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) has found that retention of headteachers in the education system is about 90%. However, there is still work to be done, as this figure does appear to be declining over time says NFER’s Karen Wespieser. More
  • Education post-brexit
    What should education look like in a post-Brexit Britain? Here ASCL Director of Policy Leora Cruddas explores the future of our education system. More
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Reassuringly, new research from the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) has found that retention of headteachers in the education system is about 90%. However, there is still work to be done, as this figure does appear to be declining over time says NFER’s Karen Wespieser.

Keeping your head

Teacher retention is a topic so frequently in the press that The Guardian keeps a dedicated ‘teacher shortages’ page on its website. What hits the headlines less often, however, is whether there is a risk of a headteacher shortage.

While the research focused on retention in the education system – as opposed to retention within individual schools – it notes that, overall, only 5% of headteachers move school each year.

The research investigated the patterns of headteacher retention, including the 10% of headteachers who can potentially be retained as they leave the system before ‘normal’ retirement age each year. These include headteachers who have stepped down from headship to a less senior role within the education system, those who have retired early and headteachers who are no longer in the DfE data and are therefore assumed to have left the system.

Which headteachers are leaving?

According to the data, headteachers working in primary schools were less likely to leave headship than their counterparts in secondary schools (7% compared with 10%). Interestingly, there are no notable differences in headteacher retention rates by gender, but there were by age.

Which headteachers are moving?

The researchers found that younger headteachers (those aged 35 or under) are more likely than older headteachers to move and become the headteacher in a different school or change role within the system. The research could not say why this was the case, but it could be that those under 35 are more mobile and are looking for more opportunities to build their career than those aged 35 and over. However, the data also revealed that this younger group was more likely to be on fixed-term or temporary contracts (14% compared to just 5% of all headteachers). So, they are not being given the same level of job security as their older counterparts.

Falling retention

The research has also revealed that headteacher retention rates fell from 2012 to 2015, particularly in secondary schools. For primary schools there was a 2% drop since 2012 and for secondary schools a 4% drop. If this trend continues, it could lead to considerable problems in the future.

The research found that headteachers are more likely to leave some types of schools than others. For example, they found that retention is significantly lower in schools rated by Ofsted as inadequate, compared to those in schools rated good or outstanding. While more than three-quarters of headteachers in schools rated inadequate are still a headteacher from one year to the next (whether in the same or a different school), retention rates are lowest in this Ofsted category. However, it should be noted that headteachers new to the post at the time the school is downgraded have higher retention rates than those who have been in post for a number of years.

Retention rates were also lower in schools with low levels of attainment, and in schools with high proportions of pupils eligible for free school meals. But the researchers emphasised that attainment is more of an influential factor than the level of disadvantage. In fact, after taking account of a school’s level of attainment, schools with higher proportions of pupils eligible for free school meals have slightly higher retention rates.

So what should we do about this?

The research offers three recommendations to those with a role in preventing effective headteachers from leaving the profession and in developing the future pipeline of leaders. These recommendations need to be considered within a changing education landscape, where there is no ‘one-sizefits- all’ job description for a headteacher given the varying contexts, sizes and complexities of schools and school groups now included within the sector.

  1. Clarify the career pathways of headteachers. These pathways should allow effective heads to lead a challenging school without a higher risk to their career and should encourage more experienced heads into challenging schools.
  2. There should be clear opportunities for the future pipeline of headteachers to develop leadership capabilities and strategies to enable headteachers to move into different roles that are beneficial to the sector, including school inspection, advisory roles and opportunities to train future leaders, before returning to headship. A career strategy needs to be set within a broader progression pathway for all levels of leader.
  3. Headteachers need clarity about what is expected in timescales deemed appropriate to those who hold them to account, and those holding them to account need to understand the trajectory of sustainable improvement. For example, are there potential indicators of improvement that would be considered as evidence before headline results improve?

In addition, the research offers three recommendations for governors:

  1. Foster an open culture where headteachers can seek and are offered support with the confidence that it will not threaten their position. Headteachers need a transparent performance management system, with clear objectives for school improvement alongside opportunities for support and development, within a culture that does not make them feel weak or vulnerable.
  2. Evaluate whether a headteacher who is not performing can be supported to improve before they are removed from post. Consider whether leaders who are not effective in one context could be supported to be effective elsewhere, or re-deployed to alternative roles.
  3. Review the range of support available to headteachers. This should include practical support to acquire the new skills required in the changing education landscape (for example, businessrelated skills), emotional support for wellbeing and peer support, such as coaching, mentoring and shadowing.

At the end of the day, not all headteachers can – or should – be retained, either in an individual school or in the wider education system.

As ASCL General Secretary Geoff Barton commented on the research: “It’s worth reminding ourselves that 90% of headteachers are retained within the system from one year to the next – a sign of how rewarding the role is for many leaders. This report makes sensible and practical recommendations about how to improve the retention of heads. We fully support these. We also note that the real pressure on those who leave headship often comes from outside the school – from judgements made within an overly punitive accountability system. We need to be quicker to celebrate the successes of school leaders in challenging contexts and slower to criticise.”

About the research

The research, Keeping Your Head, investigated the retention of headteachers within the system – whether at the same school or a different school.

It combines a quantitative analysis of School Workforce Census data over a five-year period from 2011 to 2015, with in-depth qualitative telephone interviews with 22 headteachers.

Headteachers were recruited for interview via social media. From those who expressed an interest in taking part in an interview, we selected those who met different criteria (including gender, length of time as a headteacher, school phase, school type, school-level attainment and proportion of students eligible for free school meals). The full report, Keeping Your Head: Analysis of headteacher retention by Sarah Lynch and Jack Worth is available to download for free from

Karen Wespieser is Head of Impact at the National Foundation for Educational Research. Follow her on Twitter @KarenWespieser