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Case studies or convenient fiction?

THE HEADTEACHER'S SURVIVAL GUIDE. By Marilyn Nathan, Kogan Page Pounds 16.99

The problems at Bestwick Park high school are legion and newly appointed headteacher Brenda Gatlin has her work cut out coping with them. The case studies which Marilyn Nathan uses to illustrate her points in this guide from the Kogan Page Management and Leadership series are both a strength and a weakness.

Throughout the book, realistic and believable scenarios are presented through the medium of Bestwick Park, the model school. However, the device of placing all the action in the one institution detracts from the message.You cannot help but questioning whether these are case-studies or convenient fiction.

A central message of the book - the most important - is that people matter and that the headteacher needs to learn how to manage them. The difficulty is maintaining the balance between explaining how to react to a particular case study and generalising. On balance, I did not feel that this is done well.

A comprehensive range of topics is covered in line with the people matter message. However, in a fair number of examples I felt that the information was obvious. Indeed, I began to question how anyone could be appointed head if they did not possess this information. Then I would come across an idea or a view that I had not met myself or even considered. Headteachers, when appointed, have a variety of experience behind them. Each requires a different set of skills developed and hence the importance of Headlamp headteacher induction schemes that involve initial assessment of need.

There were some factual points that bugged me. Governors' committees were frequently referred to as sub-committees. The term "associate" staff was used throughout the book but the rationale for it came only in the final chapter.

Some recruitment procedures were dismissed as discredited or not good practice. Anyone is entitled to their own opinion but opinions should be presented as such, particularly in a book of this nature. It is always the practice in my authority to send out selection criteria so that candidates can be clear what the appointment panel is looking for. At a senior level in school where teamwork is so important, we find the observed group discussion to be a very useful device.

There are some good bits to this guide and I suspect that different heads will find different parts useful. Probably it is sensible to dip in as you need to, which may mean missing episodes of the developing soap at Bestwick Park.

Rest assured that just like in real life, all problems are not solved by the last page.

* Tony Garwood is headteacher of Islington Green School, London

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