How low can they go?

Mike Kent

One of my favourite TES columns is "What keeps me awake at night" because it reflects, in an impassioned way, the reality of the classroom coalface. Two articles have recently been written on virtually the same topic: aggressive headteachers who bulldoze their way through people's feelings in their never-ending crusade to "drive up standards".

During my career, I met several heads who were arrogant, a number who bordered on incompetent and quite a few who were eccentric. I worked for a couple of the latter variety. One of them came to school in jodhpurs on fine days and went off in the afternoons to ride his horse on Hampstead Heath. The second dealt with lost property by chucking it out of his office window, where it landed in the branches of a sturdy chestnut tree in the playground. The bits of clothing were removed by the schoolkeeper on Fridays with a long window pole.

None of this would be accepted these days, but odd though they were, these heads were relatively harmless. They didn't run around frightening the staff or make them sweat until the midnight hours compiling endless and usually useless lists of tracking data. That seems to be what is happening today, though, and a frightening number of teachers seem unhappy and disillusioned because they are not doing what they were employed to do: teach children effectively.

I fail to see why so many heads feel that a bullying and aggressive nature is required to get the best out of a teaching staff. Hierarchy seems to be everything. Ofsted, led by a man who thinks keeping morale low is the way to raise standards, leans heavily on heads. The heads lean on their deputies, who in turn lean on the school's middle managers. Middle managers lean on the poor infantry, evaluating, scrutinising and monitoring everything they do. No wonder the annual turnover of teachers in some schools is so high. The constant scrutiny means they never get a chance to show what they can do.

At a conference a while back, I watched with interest a very large lady, obviously an aspiring school leader rapidly moving up the ranks - and she wanted everybody to know it. "Yes, I've got five people under me now," she announced in a loud voice to the people around her. "Wow," said one of them. "Five people under you? They must be bloody uncomfortable."

In my 30 years of primary headship, my senior leadership team consisted of me and my deputy. That was it. There were no other managers, just people responsible for aspects of the curriculum. When there were issues to discuss, develop or organise, we did it as a whole staff. The opinion of the newest NQT was just as valid and important as the opinion of somebody who had been at the school for 20 years. Everybody felt involved and valued, and the emphasis was on being positive about people, not battering them until their job became a miserable chore.

How the heads described in the two articles can live with their consciences I have no idea, but I suppose there will always be those who get a kick out of bullying the people under them.

How ironic that we are trying to develop children into thinking, caring, useful members of society, and yet an increasing number of schools leaders seem to have about as much humanity as Dickens' sadistic head Wackford Squeers.

Mike Kent is a retired primary school headteacher. Email:

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