Recently, my husband, John, was called into a surprise meeting with an official he’d never met. Without making eye contact, the man demanded John surrender his laptop and immediately leave the premises.
John* is a much-loved secondary head, and this was how he was suspended after allegations of a "loss of confidence" and an inability to remove a structural deficit. He was not, and is not, allowed to speak to any parents, students or staff about what happened – the next day he simply didn’t show up at morning assembly, and the school carried on without him.
John has spent much of the past decade turning the school’s fortunes around. Despite drastic budget cuts, curriculum changes, endless rounds of redundancies, union battles and dwindling student numbers, he propelled the school up through the danger zone of Ofsted rankings and into the "good’" category. He knows the name of every one of his thousand-odd students, and is a hugely popular, passionate and tireless head at the heart of the community. But fresh on the back of unstinting praise from Ofsted, brilliant positive parental satisfaction surveys and excellent GCSE results, his Cassandra-like warnings to me about his precariousness have finally come to pass.
Suspension, the Department for Education argues, is a so-called "neutral act" – a completely non-pejorative pause while unfettered investigation takes place. But you don’t get to just define your terms like that – internal processes and definitions must obey external logic. Context matters. In the real world, suspension implies guilt. And even the horrible whiff of safeguarding concerns, particularly when combined with the enforced isolation and stonewalling the process demands. Imagine you see your charming childminder neighbour being led away in handcuffs – are you relaxed and confident in his presumed innocence, or are you questioning whether to let him babysit next week?
I want to know: who is suspension neutral to? To the mother of a new Year 7 student who signed up after John’s open day speech, and hears at the school gates that he has inexplicably disappeared? To the SLT, who must flail in the dark and fend off questions after their leader is taken out back and shot? To his other headteacher friends and colleagues, who see their own fate in his and feel more frightened and stressed than ever? To his devastated wife, who subjects him to endless questioning over what really happened because even she isn't immune to the safeguarding fears? To John, who has his email account frozen, his work computer raided, his colleagues questioned, his communication channels hermetically sealed, his alarm clock turned off and his days suddenly empty?
Headteachers 'chewed up and spat out'
Something has to change. We require our heads to be masters of all trades – to have the sensitivity of therapists, the ruthlessness of executioners, the indomitable enthusiasm of NQTs and the business sense of financial analysts. Like football managers, their jobs are only as safe as the last victory. It’s not just the delivery of sterling GCSE and A-level results or "good" Ofsted judgments that keep them employed for another term; although if they don’t guarantee those, they risk losing their jobs almost immediately. It’s what doesn’t get totted up – the fundraising they must do time to keep the school afloat; the reams of pastoral care; the adjudication between sparring, separated parents; the funds they set up to buy shoes for kids who can't afford them; the rafts of redundancies they don’t want to bring about; the endless political wrangling and conflicting priorities and impossible expectations.
In what other professions do we demand these impossible, almost biblical, standards of perfection? At times, the strictures of his role have been so all-consuming they have utterly engulfed us both. Sleepless nights, irascibility, depression, paranoia and a total feeling of impermanence have plagued him and threatened the fabric of our marriage. Each day a new, unwinnable battle must be fought, and the rules just keep on changing. Just weeks ago, he was bemoaning the apathy of his A-students – he can’t get in and do their exams for them, but when they slack off en masse (say, because of an unprecedented amount of unconditional offers from universities – another side effect of the corporatisation of education that’s at the heart of his budget issues), he goes to bed petrified he’ll be ousted at the next governors’ meeting.
Heads are leaving the profession in droves; broken after too many years shouldering this nigh-impossible burden. Over the years we've been together we've bumped into so many of John’s ex-students from past schools in the street. They invariably light up and tell me he was their favourite teacher. He still gets overwhelming, exalting comments from people who track him down online to tell him how he transformed their life. He genuinely changed lives, and yet he tells me he won’t be going back to his school regardless of the results of the suspension. He's been chewed up and spat out in the most ignominious way possible, and he feels humiliated and lacking in the confidence they say he no longer inspires. And he's not alone – it is a tragic, wasteful brain drain that sucks our most talented teachers and headteachers off the frontline and into consultancy positions or out of the sector entirely.
John will now join the ranks of the "disappeared" headteachers who are shamed into resigning and then muzzled by gagging clauses; without which they will not get the reference they need to move on. Many are too depressed to leave the house – branded failures and reeling from the shock of unemployment after years of non-stop activity and adrenaline. They are completely cut off from their closest support networks; publicly shamed (because the local media will undoubtedly get hold of a story like theirs); and surrounded by smoke without fire. After years of unrelenting pressure, it seems to me you couldn't contrive a more perfect tinder box for desperate thoughts.
It's the kids who will ultimately suffer. John will find a place somewhere else, but the children who truly depended on him will end up being led by a thick-skinned bureaucrat who can't remember their name or anything about their lives. Disadvantaged pupils will slip between the cracks and other services will have to scrape them up later. One of John's ex-governors response to his colleague said it all.
"And now the school’s greatest asset is on the sideline. I don’t know what the game is any more, but it’s certainly not education."
*Not his real name. Certain details in this article have been changed to protect the author's identity