A group of former heads have set up a vital service for colleagues with nowhere to turn
CREDIT: This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared on The Guardian
For Alex Barnes*, head of a large secondary school in Yorkshire, the stresses of being in charge in the pandemic became too much. Last spring, just at the end of the first lockdown, she reached breaking point. “The demands were coming at me from every angle,” she says. “Worried parents bombarding me with questions, teachers and their unions demanding assurances that the school was safe. I became desperately worried that I’d be responsible for a rise in infections.
“One night I went home to my husband and said, ‘I don’t think I can do this any more.’ The look of shock on his face. He had never heard me speak like that before.”
Sophie Barwell* was just six months into her first headship when COVID struck. Suddenly she found it lonely at the top.
“All our teachers had ancient laptops they couldn’t use for remote working,” she says. The school’s finances were low. “Things reached crisis point,” says Barwell, “when I had to write complex health and safety assessments and I had no knowledge of how to do it.
“I just hadn’t anticipated the anxiety and how much that would damage me and my family. I’m worried that I’m suddenly going to stop functioning, that I’m going to have a heart attack walking along the corridor.”
Before the pandemic, Barwell had been supported informally by other local heads. “Those networks collapsed because every head was having to manage the crisis themselves,” she says.
“I haven’t had more than five hours’ sleep a night over the last year. I wake up at 4am, get up and fire off emails.”
Union leaders are now increasingly concerned about the number of heads who are struggling to cope. Sara Ford, of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), says: “We are phenomenally worried about our members’ physical and mental health.” A February ASCL survey of members found nearly a half of respondents claimed that their workload was no longer manageable.
More worrying still, 55% of headteachers are thinking of leaving their current role as soon as the pandemic ends. Heads want to see schools through this emergency, says Ford, but many could resign very soon, preparing for a final exit this summer. “There is also urgent concern about the pipeline, where talent of the future will come from.”
Ros McMullen, a former headteacher, still remembers what she felt when the pandemic first swept the country in the spring of 2020. “I felt utter relief that I wasn’t an executive head any more, having to run schools during this time – competing with a terrible guilt that I wasn’t there, doing the job.”
Headship, says McMullen, “is the best job in the world – except when it isn’t. The chance to make a difference to so many children, to your staff and the community is a huge privilege, but it comes with a massive weight of responsibility.”
McMullen, who had taken early retirement the summer before, got together with her friend and former colleague Andrew Morrish; they decided they had to do something.
In October 2020, they set up Headrest, a confidential phone service for headteachers, some of whom are struggling without support.
Even in normal times as a head, says McMullen, there were working days beginning at 7am and ending at 7pm. There was “having to walk drug dealers off the site. Or sitting alone in my office at the end of the day and a young member of staff comes in to tell you she has been diagnosed with cancer.”
Now heads face the extra burden of responsibility and risk that comes with COVID: making decisions about safety. Bereavements. Weekly new school policy announcements from the government. All the while, staff, students and parents expect the headteacher to be the one providing support, reassurance and answers. But who helps a lonely and panicking headteacher?
A report last month from NAHT, the heads’ union, found that almost three-quarters of school leaders cited the government’s constantly changing pandemic guidance as their biggest challenge in the past year. And almost half of assistant and deputy headteachers say they have no desire to become the headteacher themselves.
Once Headrest was set up, managed by a core team of four – McMullen, Morrish, Pete Crockett, a former special school head, and Kenny Frederick, a former head in east London – the calls began to roll in.
“Some messages have been just sobbing,” says McMullen. “We always ring back, even if they say nothing, and this has always been welcomed.” Calls have tended to come in flurries, with Sundays and Mondays as the “peak days”.
“Often there’s a final straw that drives a head to pick up the phone, maybe a stroppy parent or a local councillor criticising them on Facebook,” says Morrish.
It would be hard to find two more experienced school leaders than McMullen and Morrish. McMullen helped to build a small multi-academy trust in Leeds before becoming executive principal of a trust in the Midlands. When he was 29, Morrish was one of the youngest headteachers in the country, of a large primary in east London. He later became founder chief executive of a trust of nine schools in the Midlands.
The helpline is not the only port of call. There are consultancies offering private advice, and the Department for Education funds a pilot scheme run by Education Support, a national charity, offering one-on-one counselling and peer group support sessions.
Sinead McBrearty, head of the charity, says: “We provide what we can in terms of emotional support, a small amount of which is funded by DfE, but austerity has meant that professional development has been pared back across the country, and the picture is incredibly inconsistent.
“Senior and middle leaders should have access to a range of services – coaching, mentoring, peer support, professional supervision – that give them the confidential space to reflect on what they do, to develop and improve and to discharge stress that arises from the job. This is common practice in many other demanding professions with a caring component.”
*Names have been changed to protect headteachers and schools.