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Women teachers put off becoming heads for fear of compromising their ideals

Career decisions influenced by 'mistaken belief', according to University of Leicester academic

Issued on 02 September 2010

Women teachers are rejecting the chance to lead schools in part because of a mistaken belief that they will have to compromise their ideals in becoming head teachers.

This is the conclusion of detailed qualitative research with staff in secondary schools, being presented by University of Leicester academic Dr Joan Smith at the BERA conference tomorrow, which exposes a sharp difference of views between serving heads and classroom professionals about what the vital job of school leader entails.

While all 10 female heads interviewed were positive about their work, 28 out of 30 women teachers questioned were adamant they would not take on the role, citing a string of worries including work-life balance, the perceived loneliness of the job and becoming more detached from working with children.

The findings come as a national study by academics at the University of Manchester, also being presented at BERA, finds that more than half of senior leaders in all schools nationally who are not already in the job do not want to become head teachers, with women especially averse to the idea.

The research by Dr Smith listed a perceived clash of the values implicit in teaching and in leading schools as the first reason why so many classroom professionals rejected the top job.

While the teachers interviewed said the most important aspect of their work was classroom teaching and their relationships with pupils, most perceived that taking on leadership roles would make them more “remote” from children.

Instead, becoming a head teacher involved taking on a “facts and figures” culture, said the teachers, with too much emphasis placed on a political-educational culture surrounding schools which many found “abhorrent”. Aspects of this forming the backdrop to the head’s perceived role included school image management, “measurable outcomes, competition, accountability and the blame culture”.

School leadership, they felt, was not viewed as a teacher’s job at all. Instead, there was seen to be too much emphasis on paperwork and finance.

“By refusing to compromise their principles in the quest for promotion, and opting instead for classroom teaching, the women felt able to keep a pupil-centred focus. Seen in this light, a decision not to apply for senior posts could be seen as an act of resistance to a culture and a set of values the women chose to reject,” says the paper.

The teachers were also put off by a belief that heads had to risk losing the support of colleagues by implementing unpopular policies, a feeling by many women that they were not ‘tough’ enough for the role and a fear that the job was stressful and time-consuming.

However, the heads themselves were much more upbeat, citing the chance to help pupils develop their potential as their main source of job satisfaction. They added that, although their workloads could be heavy and intense, it was possible to gain control over work-life balance.

Dr Smith concludes that, in fact, the two sets of women’s perspectives were not at all incompatible. Both had a clear commitment to pupil achievement and welfare and the need for positive relationships with colleagues, while the “tough” image many had of the head belied the fact that being caring was a core part of their job.

These messages need to be communicated to teachers in order to avert shortages of school leaders, argues Dr Smith. She says: “If the caring, manageable job of headship as conveyed in the head teachers’ interviews were to replace more predominant images of school leadership, more women, and arguably some more men, might be encouraged to aspire for headship.”

The national survey of more than 1,100 primary and secondary senior and middle school leaders, led by Professor Olwen McNamara of the University of Manchester, found that some 55 per cent of those not already head teachers did not aspire to the role.

Only 27 per cent of the 855 deputy heads, assistant heads and middle leaders said they aspired to the top job, with a further 18 per cent undecided. Overall only one in four women said they wanted to become a head, compared to 35 per cent of men; the difference was most marked in the primary phase where over three-quarters of male deputies aspired to headship, compared to just over one third of women deputies.

This research was carried out for the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers.

“Understanding career decisions: women teachers’ and headteachers’ perceptions of secondary headship” will be presented by Joan Smith, of the University of Leicester, tomorrow (Friday, September 3).

“Gendered patterns in school leadership” will be presented by Olwen McNamara, Helen Gunter and Andrew Fryers (all University of Manchester) and John Howson of Education Data Surveys tomorrow.

Further information from:

Warwick Mansell, BERA press officer, (off) 02476 528 916 (from 9am, Wednesday, September 1), Email:

Notes for editors:

1 The 40 teaching professionals interviewed for Joan Smith’s study comprised of 10 head teachers, ten late-career teachers with 20 or more years’ experience who were not heads and deputies, 10 mid-career teachers with between 10 and 15 years’ experience and 10 newly-qualified teachers. All worked in secondary schools.

2 Some findings from Olwen McNamara’s study were highlighted in a press release published in July 2010 by the NASUWT union. See

3 The annual conference of the British Educational Research Association is being held at the University of Warwick from Wednesday, September 1 to Saturday, September 4. More than 500 research papers will be presented during the course of the conference. The conference programme can be accessed via the BERA website:

BERA’s website is


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