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Look to the fountainhead

Sir Michael Wilshaw asked an interesting question in TES recently. If some schools from the poorest communities can be outstanding, he said, why can't they all? And to try to answer that question, among others, he said he would be gathering a panel of "leading heads and academic experts" this term.

Well, to save him time and trouble I can give him the answer. Look at any successful school and you'll find an effective leadership team at the top of it. The quality of the headteacher is crucial and so, to a slightly lesser extent, is the deputy head. Great heads are first-class teachers who relate well to young people. They are leaders who can inspire, earn respect from children and staff, challenge where necessary, have a high visibility in school, and be people of tolerance, enthusiasm and humour. Most importantly, teachers will relish working for them, their enjoyment filtering through to the children. Finally, they will want each child to feel that school is a valuable place, somewhere to reach their maximum, but individual, potential.

That last sentence is important. Take the primary sector, for example. Far too often, a school is labelled outstanding because it has high Sats results, children with additional needs have been force-fed via intervention groups in order to scrape the mandatory sub-levels of progress and all the data pushes the right buttons for impressing the inspectorate. This may be seen as outstanding practice by government ministers and their acolytes, but it is as far away from a proper educational experience for children as it is possible to get. Reading the latest notions of so-called good practice being thrust at schools by civil servants, I can only assume our educational masters haven't the slightest notion of the damage they are doing to young people.

In today's educational climate, being a headteacher is extremely intense (and often short-lived, given how easily they are now fired). This is why we have seen the increasing prevalence of the bullying head, who burns teachers out and causes breakdowns; the head who has no feeling for people because the accent is on extreme rigour, scrutiny, accountability and, above all, results. Absolutely nothing else matters. Any empathy with their classroom teaching days is long forgotten.

I often wonder how some of these people were appointed to the position of supposedly leading others, because every week my postbag grows with alarming stories from good teachers who, for sanity's sake, are heading for the hills. Some would be laughable if they weren't so serious. A chair of governors who proudly announced that his primary school dealt very effectively with behaviour problems because they had put 23 children on fixed-term exclusions last year. A headteacher who has a personal assistant, three secretaries, a deputy head and two assistant heads. A large secondary? No, a primary. A headteacher who drops into lessons regularly, with his deputy and a governor, and pulls the lesson to bits. A teacher who went to see his head because he was worried about stress levels being experienced by several members of staff and received a formal note the next day alleging professional misconduct.

So, if Sir Michael wants all schools in poorer communities to be outstanding in the truest sense of the word, he'll have to look very carefully at school leadership. Everything else is secondary to it.

Mike Kent is a retired primary school headteacher. Email:

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