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In an increasingly fragmented and competitive education system, recruiting the ‘best’ school leaders is based on fabricated notions of leadership. A recent job advert earned derision for being off-putting rather than inspiring. However, we argue here that what was shocking was that the advert left out the fabrications and said the quiet part out loud. To succeed, school leaders indeed have to deal with contradictions; not allow ‘under-achievers’ onto the bus; challenge, not please, their customers; work too hard and support the vision. We argue that these recruiters are not to blame; their requirements are a logical response to a damaging policy landscape.

‘There are no contradictions. Everything is aligned’

School leadership is contradictory, which this advert accurately reflects. We point out these contradictions not as a ‘gotcha’ to the school, but to note that school leadership has long been used to suture together contradicting elements in public-services provision. Consequently, the ideal assistant headteacher here will ‘display candour’ unless disagreeing with the school vision, which must be enacted. The school offers ‘a strong commitment to reducing workload’, yet requires candidates to ‘work ridiculously hard’. Applicants must evidence ‘innovation and creativity’ while ‘ensur[ing] the effective operation of quality control systems in … teaching, learning, behaviour and achievement’. The clashing elements are located in different educational paradigms, that is, welfarist versus corporatised/managerialist; they cannot align. The issue is structural, not individual to this school.

‘We cannot carry anyone’

The education profession has been constructed as deficient since the 1992 Ofsted framework. Headteachers have been schooled in Collins’ mantra of getting the right people on the bus in the right seats and getting the wrong people off the bus. Hence the (assistant) headteacher’s task is to ‘make people better at the job’ through using metrics to determine contract renewal or termination. Professional knowledge no longer focuses on educational values, research, debate and judgement about the curriculum, pedagogy and assessment, but concerns process and outcome delivery. Senior staff make people better at the job as organisational ‘henchmen’ who use normative seduction (vision and mission) and realistic fears (the data show you are failing, which endangers us all). Education reform is based on Jurassic management that has turned schools into corporatised theme parks.

‘Professional knowledge no longer focuses on educational values, research, debate and judgement about the curriculum, pedagogy and assessment, but concerns process and outcome delivery.’

Beyond customer focused

To compete, schools must recruit leaders who keep consumers happy. For decades, powerful voices have lobbied for education in England to embrace free-market principles. Standards will be driven up, these voices argue, if parents can choose between academies, free schools, grammar schools, technical colleges, and so on. School choice positions parents as customers and schools as businesses. And in business, the customer is always right.

But this market is really only a ‘quasi market’ and only certain parents have the right currency to spend. What’s more, the advert notes that some parents/customers are not always right. Where parents obstruct improvement, they become objects of the required ‘relentless’ focus on standards. Such parents must be challenged ‘to ensure they meet [the school’s] expectations’. This is totalising, but not surprising.

‘Unrivalled work ethic’

Contemporary policy conditions have created a high-pressure environment where school leaders’ work is intensified and extended (including expectations of 24/7 availability through emails and social media). Such overwork has serious consequences for leaders’ health, wellbeing and their intention (or ability) to remain within the profession, identified as a driver of leadership attrition. Overwork is privileged in policy implicitly and explicitly (for example, by seeking ‘relentless’ improvement) and through unrealistic job descriptions which negatively affect future leaders’ aspirations to take on the top job. To lead means to adhere to this impossible work ethic.

‘Not a maverick – we row together’

This subheading is one of several essential requirements in the job advert’s person specification that reveal an institutionalised preference for compelled thought and actions, as well as for total adherence to the headteacher’s vision. This is only a particularly unmediated reflection of what education policy demands. For example, the current headteachers’ standards privilege solo, heroic actions over within-school relationship-building, shared decision-making and policy consultations. Consequently, merely articulating a vision in the continuing era of high accountability constitutes school leadership. Therefore, visions cannot be meaningfully delegated for all that their standards-agenda orientation could be predicted. Disagreement with the vision may prompt dismissal. Despite the rise of distributed leadership in policy, and despite discourse reproducing notions of collaboration, this school exemplifies how power is maintained with the headteacher precisely because delegation is dangerous in a high-stakes accountability culture.

In conclusion, this school advert is honest to a fault about the demands of school leadership. Its leaders have suffered, but we implore commentators to direct their critique instead towards the conditions that made this advert possible.

More content by Belinda C. Hughes, Steven J. Courtney, Paul Armstrong, Helen Gunter, Alexander Gardner-McTaggart, Amanda Heffernan, Mark Innes and Craig Skerritt