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Being a head should be a job a normal hardworking teacher can do

The rise of the superhead has been well documented – but it shouldn’t have to take a superhuman to run a school

Headteachers, heads, superheads, headship

My first headteacher was a man named Mr Connelly and he was great. A kindly, vague figure who told great stories in assembly, joined us for whole-school photographs and occasionally pottered into your classroom to admire work on the wall or borrow a child to help him find his glasses (which were almost always on his head).

I have no idea if he was typical of heads of his era, but he was of the teaching generation for which, if you had your sights set on school leadership, it helped to be in the right place at the right time (in this case, the Spotted Dog on a Friday night).

Once in position, he didn’t have to worry about budgeting and funding – the money came directly from the local authority. There was no learning data to speak of and no Ofsted. After lunch, he would retreat to his office for a nap, leaving his highly competent deputy to ensure that it was business as usual in the rest of the building.

To say that a bit more is expected of today’s headteachers would not be an exaggeration. Even I, with my conspicuously absent talent for leadership, could probably have coped with his job. Mr Connelly’s modern-day equivalent must be not only a gifted classroom teacher but also an accountant, statistician, HR worker, health and safety executive, behaviour expert, lawyer and general inspiration.

In short, they have to be a little bit superhuman. The headteacher-as-hero phenomenon has become standard fare. The last decade has seen the rise (and several prominent falls) of the "superhead”, and individual school leaders have been namechecked by those in power like never before for their heroic qualities.

“Maverick” also became a desirable quality for a top school leader, with former Ofsted chief Sir Michael Wilshaw holding up Clint Eastwood as a role model – thus giving the impression that galloping into schools and spraying testosterone around was the key thing (an odd metaphor for such a female-dominated profession).

Nowhere, among this grandiloquence, do you hear a mention that a headteacher should also be kind (which possibly explains why it’s not unusual to get a demonstrably autocratic and bullying school leader lauded as “inspirational” by Ofsted.)

Words like “exceptional”, “dynamic” and “outstanding” are now standard fare on headteacher recruitment ads. Since, by definition, these adjectives can only denote a very small sub-section of the population, clearly the recruitment challenge has not got any easier. You now only read two types of stories about headteachers: one is from people who have never actually worked in a school calling for heroic, superhuman leaders; the other is from actual headteachers explaining why they’re leaving a job that nearly killed them.

It does make you wonder if all this hyperbole from on high is tantamount to admitting that the job has got so tough the only people capable of doing it effectively are superhumans: those chosen ones in capes and erroneously placed underwear who can eschew sleep, social life and peace of mind for large parts of the year to put their health and reputation on the line for a job that will pay them a fraction of what some other professions (who require no such heroic attributes) will receive.

Surely it would make more sense to tweak the job description rather than the people who do the job. Make it a job that a normal person could do: a normal, dedicated, hardworking, fallible, caring, intelligent, experienced teacher who would like to lead a school and not self-immolate in the process. We don’t need another hero – we just need to find a way to enable normal hardworking teachers to lead schools without collapsing under the strain.

Jo Brighouse is a pseudonym for a teacher in the Midlands. She tweets @jo_brighouse

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