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Crown and castle

"How is it," asked a TES reader in an email to me, "that some headteachers can be so unsuited to managing people?" It's a question I've pondered many times.

What makes an effective leader? Ofsted's Sir Michael Wilshaw might tell you it's somebody who drives their staff hard. Educationalist Sir Tim Brighouse would say it's a manager who treats their staff with sensitivity and encouragement.

Headship is a funny thing: you're the lord of your manor, with control over everything that happens in it. It's an awesome responsibility and it needs to be thought about often, lest you fall into the trap of believing you're omnipotent.

During my early career, I learned much from the three headteachers I worked for. One was outstanding: a trim, dedicated woman in her fifties who cared deeply about the children in her deprived South London school. If the snow was thick on the ground and her train wasn't running, she'd be up at 5am walking to work. If a teacher was away, she'd take the class herself and thoroughly enjoy it. In doing so, she commanded great respect from her staff - unlike my first headteacher.

People would fall asleep in his staff meetings. As a young, enthusiastic teacher, I couldn't believe how tedious his assemblies were. He would thunder out All Things Bright and Beautiful, followed by the Lord's Prayer and a telling-off. It was pointless. Supply agencies didn't exist then, and if teachers were ill and he was forced to take a class he would always do exactly the same lesson: graphs illustrating the children's favourite animals, colours or football teams.

My second headteacher had a thing about lost property. Brought up in an age of austerity, he expected pupils to keep track of their clothing at all times. By half-term, the lost property would be piled up and he'd bring it into assembly, holding each piece at arm's length like an over-ripe kipper. Little was claimed, and when he got really upset he would toss items out of his office window, where they adorned the branches of a tree until the premises officer removed them with a skilfully aimed rake.

But these two paled beside the headteacher a friend of mine worked for. He spent much of his time avoiding children, and his school life was divided between meetings and riding his horse on Hampstead Heath. On a fine day, he would frequently come to assembly clad in jodhpurs and riding jacket; the staff knew there would be no point in trying to find him that afternoon.

Apart from his horse, his greatest pleasure was his deputy, with whom he was having a clandestine relationship. Occasionally they'd duet in assembly: her on the piano, him singing.

The first time, children and staff were stunned into disbelieving silence, which the couple took to be appreciation. But as the concerts increased in frequency, the "appreciation" waned. One morning the performance was halted and the headteacher rose to his full 5ft 2in. "Your attention span is on a par with a tin of maggots," he roared at the children, before storming out.

Mike Kent is a retired primary school headteacher. His book A Life at the Chalkface is out now, published by Bretwalda Books. Email:

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