'You don't see them in the corridors, classrooms or playgrounds: put the "teacher" back into "headteacher"'
When the first question a new headteacher asks a member of staff is: “What were your residuals last year?”, you know the “type” of headteacher they are.
The type who won’t be seen in corridors, classrooms, the grounds or in departmental areas. The type who will be as inaccessible to staff as they are to students, hiding behind brick and mortar or PAs, and perhaps even willing deputies.
The type who is more interested in sampling spreadsheets than supporting staff, dallying over data than developing relationships, and most of all, scared of children. That’s right; scared of children. Spotting misbehaviour in the playground and tactically ignoring it. Fleeing to the sanctity of the office, relying on email for contact. The type who will watch whole batches of experienced staff leave and declare it to be “healthy turnover”.
I must say, I have been fortunate to work with two headteachers who were very much the polar opposite of this (and I’m not just saying that because this is an article for TES). Both could be seen regularly in the corridors speaking to children, asking how they were and telling them to straighten their ties. Their office doors always seemed to be open. One would send a birthday card to every member of staff (it's true) and neither would hide behind their status.
But there is a danger that more and more heads who are cut from this cloth are going to disappear from our system, impacting on staff, students and teaching environments across the country.
"Teaching” heads are being gradually replaced by “business” heads. Even titles are changing, with “chief executive” or “executive principal” becoming more common than “headteacher” in the language of the profession. The rise of academy chains, which will grow spuriously in the next few years, perhaps creates even more layers before the top person can be found.
'It's becoming a results business'
Eventually, an analogy from the First World War might apply to teaching; soldiers complaining that they never see their generals on the lines. Generals being too distant from the real action to make the right decision for their troops. Of course, every head will have a different leadership style, but this goes beyond that. This is about a certain ethos creeping into the state sector; it’s becoming a results business.
In 1960, my grandmother took on her first headship at a primary school near Birkenhead. She would run the assemblies, playing the piano with the children singing along. She would teach a lot of lessons. She would ensure that the needs of staff were met on a day-to-day basis and that they were genuinely supported. She was a teaching headteacher in its truest sense. In football management terms, she was David Moyes at Everton or Jurgen Klopp at Liverpool; a “coaching” manager, wearing a tracksuit for games and running training sessions from the front.
Let's not pretend that being a headteacher between 1950 and 1980 was a delightful existence. Of course, working with children has always had its peaks and troughs. But it was about the children. Now heads have to please various “stakeholders”, be it governors, the government, thinktanks, parents, children and the entire community whilst all the time “keeping up with the Joneses” on league tables. So even heads who want to immerse themselves in the nitty gritty of school life have time constraints and administrative blocks to doing that. This is wrong. Heads need to be able to be people again and be supported in this.
However, make no mistake, this is also about personality. We need more people with a child-centric outlook and a staff-centred purpose. We need more people with the guts to say “no” to whoever it is who challenges that; whether that be pushy parents or misguided government.
Let’s put the teacher back in headteacher.