Teaching, like many other jobs, is becoming more difficult. Covid presented teachers with unprecedented and complex problems. In the main, they rose to the challenge, many going the extra mile to ensure youngsters, the most vulnerable in particular, didn’t miss out.

While the most pressing Covid-related challenges may be receding, the need for rapid change and adaptation continues to be the norm. Schools preparing youngsters for life in a rapidly changing and complex world, need the freedom and capacity to respond quickly and flexibly to forces driving change.

Change has always been a feature of Scottish education. Sure, when I set out in 1970, curriculum, assessment and certification were relatively stable, but there was a multitude of other changes. Raising the school leaving age, abolition of the 11+, introduction of comprehensive education, to name but a few. Distance and time lend enchantment, but looking back, there was more time for teachers and headteachers in particular, to manage and embed change. It’s unlikely their modern-day equivalents will be granted that luxury.

The speed and complexity of change has impacted heavily on headteachers’ roles and responsibilities. Strolling down memory lane, I recall my first headie was typically “old school”. His office graced by an open fire that the jannie set, lit and stoked throughout the day. On rare visits to his office, I couldn’t help but notice the newspaper, usually open at the crossword. The secretary delivered his coffee morning and afternoon. It was cause for trepidation if “The Boss” appeared in your classroom, as it was usually to deliver a rebuke.

Is it ridiculous to say I was genuinely afraid of him? Using his first name bordered on lese majesty. A colleague who thought a more familiar moniker might be acceptable socially, was soon put right; “I’ll remind you it’s Mr So and So, wherever we are”. He showed surprisingly little interest in the how or what of teaching. Getting the daily or weekly register wrong however, was a hanging offence. The only advice I ever received from my principal teacher was, “Do your register in pencil”. Discipline, for pupils (and staff) was down to his deputy, who bore a remarkable likeness in appearance and manner to Heinrich Himmler, but without the charm and warmth.

The old guard began to give way in the early 1980s, opening the door for a younger cohort, mainly in their 30s and early 40s. They brought a new perception of a headteacher’s roles and responsibilities. At the time, 20 or 30 applicants for headteacher posts were commonplace; very different from today. Single figure applications and even readvertisements for what would have been considered plum appointments is a regular occurrence. What has changed?

Simply, many teachers feel promotion and the additional responsibilities (and criticism) are no longer worth the candle. On the face of it, the salary is reasonable but when divided by the hours worked, it isn’t particularly generous. As a headteacher, my average working week was 60, sometimes 70 hours. In secondary schools the pay differential is too small to encourage many able faculty heads to consider a depute post or a depute to apply for a headteacher position.

I often wondered how my former primary colleagues found time for family life. Additionally, the job has become hugely stressful; the buck does indeed stop with the head. They are pulled this way and that by parents, staff, union reps, inspectors, and local officers with little knowledge or understanding of what the job entails. In a crisis, the head’s office can be lonely place. If you’re looking for loyalty and friendship, get a dog.

There are serious consequences at classroom and school levels, but there are major national implications too. Change in the wider world is not slowing and individual schools need to be flexible and light on their feet to cope. Centralised initiatives have proved too slow and lumbering to respond quickly and effectively.

Consequently, we need to make the headteacher role doable and attractive to those with vision and flair for leadership and management. Once appointed, let’s trust and empower them to identify and lead change and improvement at school and community levels. Sure, it’s risky, but then again, so is repeating past mistakes and expecting a different result.

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