Recruitment and Retention of Senior School Leaders in Wales

This project aims to broaden the evidence base on issues impacting recruitment and retention of senior school leaders in Wales and set out strategic proposals to inform policy responses

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Summary & aims

The supply of school leaders has been noted to face challenges, both nationally and in Wales, which have been exacerbated during the pandemic. This has led to fewer middle leaders aspiring to become senior leaders and headteachers, more teachers leaving the profession following the pandemic, and ultimately affected pupils’ experiences and outcomes.

This project aims to broaden the evidence base on the experiences of senior school leaders, and factors that impact recruitment and retention in those roles. This research will develop proposals for policy responses on these issues.


This research will be based on a review of quantitative evidence on the state of the senior school leadership workforce in Wales, as well as qualitative research with  current, ‘former’ and ‘future’ senior school leaders.

This research is conducted in partnership with the Education Policy Institute (EPI). The review of existing data will be led by the Education Policy Institute (EPI), and the qualitative research will be led by NIESR.

Findings and Recommendations

Data review

Our review of existing data looked at the supply of senior school leader in Wales. We find that:

  • The composition of the senior leadership workforce in all age schools in Wales has changed over the years. The number of assistant headteacher roles has dramatically increased, from 720 assistant headteachers in 2010 to 1,025 in 2021. This could indicate the growing range of SLT responsibilities.
  • The composition of school senior leadership substantially differs across regions and Local Authorities.
  • Over the last decade, the number of applicants per senior leadership vacancy has varied widely across secondary and all-age schools in Wales, with some indications of a relation between rurality and shortage of candidates.
  • Our data review looked at the average number of applicants per vacancy (quantity of applicants) and the percentage of vacancies that remained unfilled after being advertised (suitability of applicants) over the last 15 years. We can conclude that only four out of the 15 years analysed had a sufficient number of suitable candidates, with high numbers of applicants and low rates of unfilled vacancies. The most recent year with data available, 2021 was one of the worst years in this respect, with a relatively low number of candidates and a significant percentage of vacancies unfilled.
  • Differences in quantity versus suitability of the applicants are more pronounced in some Local Authorities. We found some evidence that rural Local Authorities struggle more to recruit. However, we found no indication from the existing data that the divergence of the Welsh curriculum from the English curriculum is having a significant impact in the recruitment success of Local Authorities adjacent to the border with England.
  • Turnover varies substantially among Local Authorities, with an approximately 20 percentage point difference between the Local Authorities with the lowest turnover and the highest turnover.
  • Welsh-medium vacancies are consistently harder to fill. In the last 15 years, Welsh-medium posts have significantly fewer applicants than the English-medium ones. Welsh-medium vacancies in the primary sector are particularly difficult to fill.
  • Senior school leaders in Wales are getting older, with the number of senior leaders aged 50 to 59 increasing since 2019 and the number aged 30 to 49 decreasing. This suggests that higher proportions of turnover might occur in future years as more people, particularly headteachers, retire.

Qualitative research

Our qualitative research explored questions around senior leaders’ experiences in their roles, perceptions of leadership, challenges and the potential solutions that senior leaders perceive would be effective. Our findings highlight the following themes:

  • When discussing entering senior leadership positions, the role of headteachers was frequently mentioned as an important factor, which can either enable or hinder progression of their staff, depending on the headteacher. Similarly, formal training was mentioned as both useful and at times insufficient to prepare candidates for the challenges of senior leadership. Hence, opportunities to learn on the job, through the delegation of leadership tasks, as well as through learning from other schools, were valued. Other factors that were mentioned as potential barriers to progression into senior leadership included a lack of representation, a lack of confidence, and negative perceptions of senior leadership roles. At the same time, some respondents also reported not seeing or experiencing any barriers.
  • Current, former and potential ‘future’ leaders described several aspects of senior leadership that they view as highly positive and rewarding. Those included having opportunities to make a difference to children and families, developing and supporting school staff, leading changes and development across a range of priorities, having scope for whole-school impact, feeling pride in school improvements and achievements, having a passion for their chosen specialism such as the Welsh language or the special schools’ sector, and having opportunities to influence policy.
  • While most of the senior leaders we spoke with find their roles rewarding and fulfilling, many also reported significant and recurring challenges. The main challenges reported were high workloads, poor work-life balance, a sense of isolation in leadership roles, excessive bureaucracy and administrative responsibilities, limited funding, the roles negatively impacting on the health and well-being of senior leaders, training and development not being sufficient to prepare senior leaders for the challenges of the roles, and uncertainties around retirement and pensions.

Research participants were asked about their views on what policy or practical changes could help address those challenged that they identified. Those policy suggestions from the current, former and potential ‘future’ senior leaders were analysed and further discussed and developed in the stakeholder workshops, resulting in a list of co-created policy recommendations. Those recommendations covered a number of areas for policy intervention. Across this research, seven ‘key challenge’ areas were identified. These were: current processes within local and national government, health & well-being support, training & development opportunities, support & networking for senior leaders, workload, school funding, and acknowledgement of role senior leadership and schools play in the society.

Participants also highlighted that it is important for all policy suggestions to adhere to the following: to be developed with senior leadership consultation; to recognise that the specific context of each school type, location and pupil demographic shapes the impact of policies; to not treat Additional Learning Needs (ALN) schools as an ‘add-on’ to the mainstream policies; and to set out a minimum standard of provision for all of Wales’s schools.

Principal Investigator

Recruitment and Retention of Senior School Leaders in Wales
Senior Social Researcher


Private: Johnny Runge
Principal Social Researcher


Jasmin Rostron
Associate Social Researcher
Sophie Kitson
Assistant Social Researcher

Research Partners