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Spreadsheets replace chalk

Research shows that primary heads are giving up teaching for business administration. Bob Doe reports

Primary heads are becoming less the leading professionals and more like chief executives; they no longer have a monopoly on leadership in their schools though sharing power with others - particularly lay governors - is adding to their work rather than reducing it. The danger is that schools are becoming better administered while learning is less effectively led.

These are some of the conclusions of an investigation into primary headship in the 1990s by Geoff Southworth at the Cambridge University Institute of Education. After a series of interviews with 10 primary heads from one local authority he concludes: "The heads believed they were now more management oriented than they were formerly. They feel they are the head of the organisation and only intermittently a teacher and professional leader. "

Primary heads see their job as more complex, difficult, stressful and time- consuming than it was in the 1980s. "Yet the job also remained a rewarding one. Many enjoyed the variety, unpredictability and challenge," says Geoff Southworth's report on the study.

Heads were deeply concerned about the development of their schools but they often felt harassed. "Their day-to-day tasks meant they were maintaining the school rather than developing it." They were pulled in many different and not always parallel directions as they responded to the expectations and demands of governors, parents, teachers and staff.

"Although there was a strong sense that these heads were trying to lead, there was also a sense in which they were the servants of others." Primary heads could no longer sustain a monopoly on leadership and needed to involve deputies and curriculum co-ordinators more.

But this led to conflict between their own dedication to the school, which gave rise to proprietorial feelings, and allowing others to play a part in its development. "Empowering others is neither easy nor quickly accomplished. Moreover it does not sit comfortably alongside the head's close association with the school.

"An underlying tension for some of these heads was that on the one hand they wanted to involve and empower others yet on the other hand they did not want to 'let go' their own power in case the school moved in a direction they could not sanction."

Giving school governors greater responsibilities seems to have added to heads' burden rather than relieved it. Heads generally valued governor involvement but it "slowed down the decision-making process and made it more cumbersome because so many policies needed to be authorised by the governors," says the report.

Heads are further hindered in their efforts to improve their schools by administrative and mundane organisational tasks. "They recognise the need to monitor and analyse the quality of teaching and learning but they were impeded by their perception that there was too much bureaucracy to handle. An irony of local management of schools and self-managing schools is that while heads enjoy the autonomy to manage the school as an organisation it is also imprisoning these primary heads since it often locks them away from looking at teaching and learning in the school."

This echoes the complaints of Chris Woodhead, HM Chief Inspector of Schools, that heads generally administer their schools efficiently but spend too little time evaluating the quality of teaching and learning.

In his annual report earlier this year he wrote that heads "should play a stronger part in curriculum development and, in particular, should review the implementation of new initiatives to ensure the original objectives are being achieved."

Geoff Southworth recommends heads create time to lead by delegating and increasing their clerical support and improving office management. They need to break down their professional isolation through headteacher support groups and more challenging in-service training.


Those interviewed said effective primary heads are: * positive and enthusiastic * approachable * fair * consistent * sensitive to others * caring * perceptive * resilient Their professional characteristics are that they:

* understand what goes on in school * monitor teaching and learning * are aware of individual's strengths and weaknesses * have vision * have a philosophy of how children learn * try to be ahead of the game * reflect and think things through * can deal with children * manage their time well * have the skills of a diplomat * are aware of their authority * can manage finances * are organised

Talking Heads: Voices of experience by Geoff Southworth, Pounds 5.99, University of Cambridge Institute of Education, Shaftesbury Road, Cambridge CB2 2BX

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