Headship novices learn the creed

Tony Blair gave headteachers a new college, and a leadership guru gave them new heart. They were suitably impressed

"LOOK at this! They're really disobedient," wailed Ben Zander at his audience of 600 newly-appointed heads.

What was it that Chris Patten, former governor of Hong Kong, said recently about the awkward pupils of today being the leaders of tomorrow? Mr Zander was discovering the truth of his maxim this week as he attempted to make the headteachers sitting at the back move to the empty front row.

But, after a slightly sticky start, the heads at the London conference to launch the National College for School Leadership (see below) warmed to him. They were held pretty much spellbound for two hours while the founder and music director of the Boston Philharmonic took them through the leadership routine with which he has wowed American captains of industry.

As a demonstration of self-confidence, it was awe-inspiring. "Everyone in this room has got to love classical music and understand it," he declared. It would take 11 minutes. And, using a Chopin prelude to demonstrate, he did it.

They sang Happy Birthday To You to a hapless head called Jane - not once, not twice, but three times. ("Use your hands!" he cried. "Use your heads - just a little eyebrow motion!") They learnt how Mr Zander gave A grades to all his conservatory students at the start of the year - so that it was "a possibility to live up to".

They learnt how to react to their mistakes ("Throw your hands up and say: How fascinating!") They learnt about one-buttock playing and one-buttock listening (don't ask) and the need to get away from "downward spirals" and into "radiating possibility". At the end, they gave a no-holds-barred rendering of the Ode to Joy from Beethoven's Ninth Symphony .

It was Michael Barber, head of the Standards and Effectiveness Unit, who had seen Mr Zander in Chicago and invited him to come. He had been nervous that people might scoff. But, coming after a meaty morning when the assembled heads had been addressed by the Prime Minister, the Education Secretary David Blunkett, Professor Barber and Anthea Millett of the Teacher Training Agency, the afternoon was a success.

The cost of the conference, in a plush centre with food by Leith's (Thai green chicken curry and lemon tart with fruit coulis) would have paid for a few leaking roofs or extra classroom assistants. Surely this kind of treatment was more suited to business leaders?

But that was precisely the point. The 600 heads present, so used to the often disheartening task of running their schools, were touched and inspired that they were being taken seriously, invited to a properly-run conference where the Prime Minister himself had taken time out to speak to them.

So they sang, they clapped, they were inspired. As they left, one head said: "I want to go home and think - not work, think."

A DFEE official, who was proposing to do her thinking in the pub, had gained a more positive, Zander, approach. In future, she said, when she submitted a scheme to Mr Blunkett and he said "What's this load of old rubbish?", she would simply throw up her hands and say "How fascinating!".

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