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Lessons in how not to run a school

It's the first week of term and many of our former Year 6 children have already been back to see us. They proudly show off their new uniforms and complicated timetables. I make the usual jokes. "What's your new headteacher like?" I ask. "Not half as good-looking as me, I bet."

They were pleasant, interesting children and we were sorry to see them go. Moving to secondary school brings massive change for children at a vulnerable time in their lives, and the experiences of the first few weeks are crucially important. Most secondaries now run introductory "taster" days for the new intake - a valuable initiative that helps the children to settle.

Certainly, the children who have just left us will have a vastly better time than I had as a child. Just before taking the 11-plus, I contracted chicken pox so badly I became delirious, and although I recovered enough to take the exams, sitting them was a gruelling experience. I failed the exam by one mark, and seemed condemned to the local secondary modern - an appalling institution with a reputation like Newgate Prison - but then my primary headteacher summoned my parents and said that a place had arisen at a new type of school called a comprehensive, and it was mine if they wanted it. They jumped at the chance, but there was a downside - the school was 11 miles away. I would have to be up very early indeed.

Neither my primary headteacher nor my parents could have known what an awful school it would turn out to be, particularly as the comprehensive system was just feeling its way, unsure how it should proceed. An elitist and uninterested headteacher, plus a motley collection of teachers whose lessons hardly ever rose above extremely boring, made me into quite a disaffected youngster.

So, instead, I lived for the wide range of activities and interests I had outside school, much to the concern of my patient parents.

The first week quickly warned me what to expect. On day one, nervous and hesitant after a journey in which the bus had broken down twice, I had no idea what to do or where to go. Tentatively, I approached a tall boy in the playground and asked him where I should be. He looked at me, put his arm on my shoulder, and smiled. "You new?" he asked. I nodded. "Thought so, your jacket's very clean. Tough luck, mate." And with that he wandered off.

Day two wasn't much better. I had made a friend, and our timetable said we had something called double French in Room 53. The scrummage as we negotiated the corridors when the whistle went caused us to lose our way, and by the time we found Room 53 the lesson had already been in progress for 25 minutes. We were informed that if we ever did that again, we would be severely caned.

Double maths with Mr Millington held similar pleasures. He pitched into algebra and I hadn't a clue what he was talking about. "Don't sit there with a face like a fried egg, Kent," he said helpfully. "Get your nose in the text book."

The week did hold one joyous moment. During RE, a sixth-former brought a message to the teacher. I had never seen a girl so beautiful. If there are a few more like this, only a bit younger, I thought, my passions could well be diverted from table tennis.

But at least my secondary taught me one important lesson. If I ever became lucky enough to lead my own school, I knew exactly how it shouldn't be run.

Mike Kent is headteacher at Comber Grove Primary, Camberwell, south London. Email:

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