School leaders felt forced to act as “Covid police” during the pandemic, leading to toxic run-ins with parents and souring relations with their own staff, according to research.
More than half of primary leaders and just under half of secondary leaders struggled to deal with small but vocal groups of parents, ranging from anti-vaxxers and Covid-sceptics to those who did not want their children to attend school because of fears about the virus.
Tensions have continued to persist into the new school year, according to the survey of more than 1,500 school leaders in England.
One secondary head said they regularly received a “whole barrage of vitriol”, while another said parents with extreme views thought “they’ve got the right to treat you like you’re a piece of dirt”, leading them to question if they should continue working as heads.
Although heads reported that their broader relationships improved with parents over the pandemic as a result of increased communication, many disliked having to nag parents and teachers to wear masks and observe social distancing rules.
Pat Thomson, one of the report’s authors and professor of education at the University of Nottingham, said: “During Covid you’re under a real pressure cooker situation where people are feeling stress and under pressure and really anxious.
“If you’re a head you take a real pride in things being a smooth well-running machine. When you can’t sort it really quickly it bothers you. In some cases it was a no-win situation.”
The heads interviewed felt that tensions rose due to the fact “the government was looking to blame and threaten the profession, rather than work collaboratively with school leaders”.
Toby Greany, the report’s co-author and education chair at Nottingham, said the way changes in guidance were communicated by the government was also a problem. “Often heads were only finding out about things at the same time as parents, when they were announced on the news, but parents expected them to have all the answers.”
Nearly a quarter of the heads surveyed said they felt like they were sinking during the pandemic, and two in five considered leaving the profession. Interviewees aged under 46 viewed the demands of the job as incompatible with starting a family.
Claire, a headteacher in Essex, said she worked a minimum of 70 hours a week, arriving at her desk by 7am and continuing until 10pm, as well as working weekends and during the holidays. As a result, she has stepped back from her role as executive head looking after two schools.
“We’ve all held on because we wanted to see our schools through. But I think work-life balance for school leaders was pretty poor before and the pandemic has just eroded anything there might have been. It’s just so relentless,” she said.
In a survey by the Essex Primary Headteachers’ Association undertaken in November, 417 heads rated their work-life balance at 3.6 out of 10 and their happiness in their professional role at 3.8, citing Covid, staffing issues, Ofsted and parent complaints among the biggest stressors.
Heads commented on how they had never struggled so much and that this has not improved as society has reopened. One said: “Autumn 2021 has been the hardest term in 17 years of headship and far worse than anything last year threw at us.”
Another head felt “exhausted, overwhelmed and generally unwell” beginning the school year for the first time in their 30-year career. “I managed two weeks before, one morning, I woke up and just couldn’t do it anymore.”
The Nottingham researchers predicted there would be an exodus of heads in the coming years unless the government offers more wellbeing support and professional coaching, as well as making them feel valued and easing workloads.
“My best guess is that we probably will see a very large number of more experienced leaders in the system choosing to go earlier than we otherwise would have done as a result of the last two years. Two in five isn’t inappropriate to judge,” Greany said.