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Room with a revealing view

Heads' choice of office decor provides a window to their souls, writes Mike Sullivan.

When I became a primary head I was amazed that the teachers I worked with didn't do even the simple things in the same way. They planned their lessons differently, their mark books were different and they even had peculiar ways of taking the register. Now that I travel around Britain as an education "odd-job man", I am equally astonished that headteachers don't behave in the same way I did.

Take, for example, the head's room. Mine was spartan. When new or disgruntled parents arrived, I would point out my wobbly hard-backed chair, the bare floorboards, the security bars at the window. Without a blush, I would add with a grand theatrical flourish that I spent the money on the kids and not on myself. I don't know whether the performance impressed or terrified the punters. I never thought to ask.

One head I visited recently said that the pressures of the job, with the early starts and late meetings, made her feel as if she lived at school. So she turned her room into an extension of her home. There were velvet curtains, a comfortable three-piece suite, a reproduction antique desk, some nice rugs, a tasteful print or two on the walls, subdued lighting, the daintiest tea set resting on a smoked glass coffee table and, to complete the effect, a dark oak fireplace with living gas flames.

There was a small, neat stack of files on her desk but there wasn't a book or computer to be seen. This was a place that demanded the best behaviour from any visitor.

Malcolm's office was very different. The windows had no curtains or blinds. They were fitted with one-way vision glass so he could keep an eye on who was coming and going without being observed himself. His chair was an all-rocking, all-swivelling deluxe leather special that spelt out a confusing mix of power and dentist.

Three of the walls were covered from floor to ceiling with shelving containing colour-banded box files. They were labelled with such frightening titles as "SAT Projections Year 2007", and "Churn Trends 97-01". On the fourth wall was a large whiteboard filled with targets from the school's improvement plan, graphs of SAT performances past, present and future, and the motto: "Every day in every way we get better and better." The school had the soullessness and the grim determination of a telephone call centre or a SATs factory.

Another head operated from a temporary room in a temporary building in a temporary school. Her old school had been knocked down and, until the new one was completed, she and the children were housed in a Legoland two-storey structure of portable classrooms. Her room was the nearest thing to a coffin that I want to visit this side of death. There were no windows, it was cramped, the strip lighting was hard and harsh, the furniture as cheap and temporary as the building. Every footstep and voice reverberated throughout the structure. And yet the school has a well-deserved reputation for high standards. It is astonishing that these are being maintained in such awful conditions.

At another school, built in Victorian times, the head divided her high-ceilinged room with those two-metre beige room dividers that are usually found in open-plan offices. The main area had a low table and some comfortable chairs for meetings, and a working area with her desk, filing cabinet and a computer partitioned off behind it. But the room also had two enclosed bays, each with a single shelf arranged a bit like polling booths. These were the "cells", where naughty boys were sent to work in isolation.

Another room had the country kitchen look, with breakfast bar, check curtains, hot plate, stainless steel sink and drainer. I was disappointed that there were chairs and not bar stools. The computer had a tower unit and the positioning of the monitor made it feel more suited for watching Richard and Judy than spreadsheets. It was the sort of place where you could have a friendly cup of tea and a custard cream and chat about the kids and what they were up to.

Not long ago these rooms were galleries of the best of children's work with examples of art and writing filling the walls. But they've changed as heads spend less and less time teaching while they struggle to adjust to the role of senior managers of senior management teams. Their rooms are publicprivate places that tell a story about self-image, personality and effectiveness. They give an insight into a concept of leadership and management. We visitors have the innate nosiness that makes Through the Keyhole and Changing Rooms so popular. I wonder what image is projected by the head's room in your school?

MIke Sullivan is an education consultant and former primary head. He is based in the West Midlands

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