Challenging schools find difficulty recruiting new leaders

Each year more than 2,000 schools in England advertise for a new head teacher. Most are successful at their first attempt. However, regular surveys have revealed that a proportion does not achieve success at their first attempt, and a small number require more than two attempts to find a new leader for their school. Recent research by the National College (Earley et al, 2012) has emphasised the importance of good leadership to the success of a school.

An analysis of primary and secondary schools advertising for a head teacher during the 2011/2012 school year revealed that the schools needing to re-advertise were likely to present several factors that possibly made them unattractive to some candidates. Understanding the factors affecting a school’s likely success in recruiting a new leader is of importance in the present market-led recruitment system for school leaders. Such knowledge may also help in determining whether preparation for headship embodies the appropriate skills and practices necessary for leading such schools.

Some 335 primary schools and 85 secondary schools that placed a first advertisement for a head teacher during the period between the end of August 2011 and the end of August 2012, and where there was at least one re-advertisement during the period up to the end of December 2012, were assessed as part of the study. Generally, secondary schools experience fewer challenges in recruiting a new head teacher, possibly because the ratio of potential candidates to vacancies is much higher than it is in the primary sector.

The research assessed three different aspects of each school:

  • Schools that were not straightforward primary schools, including junior and combined schools were assigned a score of 1.
  • Faith schools of any denomination were assigned a score of 1
  • Schools with KS2 results below the national average in 2012 were assigned a score of 1 as were secondary schools where the % of A*-Cs at GCSE including English and Mathematics were below the national average.
  • Schools with Free School Meals above the national average for the past six years were assigned a score of 1
  • A score of 1 was awarded for each re-advertisement. A re-advertisement was a second or subsequent advertisement more than 21 days after the original advertisement, but no more than 365 days after the original advert. The same rules were applied to each re-advertisement. The maximum score on this count was 6 for the primary sector and three for the secondary sector. In the primary sector, there were 72 schools with two re-advertisements; 23 with three; four with four; two with five and the one school with six re-advertisements. Since the re-advertisements included those during the period between September and December 2012 a small number of schools may have had their score affected by one point because they commenced their search for a new head teacher early in the 2011-12 school year compared with those that started the process latter. Hover, as 50% of head teacher initial advertisements appear between the start of January and the end of March each year the number affected is likely to be small.

Finally a minus score was applied for advertisements placed during most of the month of August and the whole of December as these are times when fewer candidates may be looking for a new post than at other times of year.

A total score was then created for each school, and the schools were ranked in descending score order. Schools with missing data were excluded from the ranking at this stage. Three schools scored six out of a possible maximum score of 10 for primary schools and one secondary school scored five out of six.



Of the schools ranked in the top 100, there were only three community primary schools including St Meryl a community primary school in Watford that topped the list. Although it has the name of a saint, according to the school brochure this referred to the name of the builder’s wife when the school was built in the early 1950s. If so, then this successful school might be well advised to consider a change of name to one less suggestive of a religious affiliation on a casual glance.  The other two community primary schools in the top 100 with below average numbers of Free School Meal pupils and above average KS2 results included another primary school in Hertfordshire, and one in Bracknell Forest.  The latter had been under-performing at KS2 for the three years before 2012.

Of the remaining 12 schools in the top 100 with below average numbers of Free School Meal pupils and above average KS2 results 10 were faith schools including three Roman Catholic, six Church of England, and one Jewish School. The two community schools were a combined school in Buckinghamshire and a junior school in Kent. Of the faith schools, one Church of England school was a combined school and three schools were junior schools, (two Church of England schools and one Roman Catholic school).

The geographical distribution of the 100 primary schools at the top of the list included 45 schools in the south East; 20 in London and nine in the counties of the East of England adjacent to London that are similar in many ways to many of the authorities in the South East. Thus, 74 schools in the top 100 were located in or around London.


Because of the large number of academies and recent academy converters full details are only available for 69 of the 84 secondary schools with re-advertisements. The missing data relates to either Free School Meals or KS4 results data. Of the 84 school with full or partial data 10 are in London, including seven of the 37 schools with a score of three or above, some 19%. Fifteen of the schools in the top 37 are faith schools, including 12 of the top 20.

Some 20 of the schools have above average KS4 results and below average scores for Free School Meals. Of these schools, ten are faith schools. However, there are only four such schools in the top 37. Three are Roman Catholic schools, and the fourth is an 11-18 boys’ school that is converting to become an academy.


The presence of a significant number of faith schools in our results is perhaps not a surprise since it has been reported for many years that such schools, and especially, but not exclusively, Roman Catholic schools have experienced difficulties in recruiting new head teachers.

The extension of the work to consider whether there might be other factors affecting recruitment, and specifically whether a combination of higher than average numbers of pupils with access to Free School Meals and lower than average Key Stage outcomes for the sector might affect recruitment is a new departure. Seemingly, such a combination does affect the market, with higher numbers of such schools re-advertising, with the South East and counties to the north of London being noticeable among the schools in the primary sector, with secondary schools in London probably also being over-represented. Clearly, where these schools are faith schools, the issues are obviously compounded.

It is clear that as Free School Meal levels increase, so there are a greater number of schools performing less well. While this may be understandable for secondary schools, where many are coping with the effects of under performance by their pupils since the start of their education it is less so in the primary sector where the importance of the early years of education has been known for some time. Those schools with high levels of Free School Meals are now being helped with the additional funding through the Pupil Premium scheme. However, the considerable number of primary schools with relatively few pupils who will benefit from that scheme, but still currently under perform  in some cases quite markedly so, must be of concern.

An analysis of schools in the primary sector where the Free School Meals index was below 20 revealed no real difference between the performance of faith and non-faith schools

There may well be other factors, such as the size of the school that need to be taken into account when considering the challenges facing school seeking a new leader, but it seems likely that the interplay of factors relating to deprivation and control of the school are still key factors in how easy a school will find it to recruit a new leader. The location of a school in London or the counties and authorities surrounding the capital may be a further subsidiary factor that can affect some schools.

How the future governance of schools will affect leadership recruitment and development in the future is clearly something that will need watching with interest.


Earley, et al. (2012). Review of the school leadership landscape. Nottingham; National College for School Leadership.


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