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'Surely it's time to abolish the position of headteacher'

The era of the headteacher as absolute monarch must be brought to a close - especially if we want more people to step up to senior roles

'Surely it's time to abolish the position of headteacher'

The era of the headteacher as absolute monarch must be brought to a close - especially if we want more people to step up to senior roles

Towards the end of last year I caused a few carburettors to overheat on these pages when I questioned whether headteachers should have their own designated car-parking space. A few head gaskets then completely blew when I went on to suggest that the soundest headteachers in the land might not be all that interested in owning an expensive car, what with metal being what it is.   

So, in the conciliatory spirit of the new year, I thought I’d try to cool things down now by asking a different question: never mind the car and the parking-space, do schools need the headteacher?   

Let’s be clear from the start. This is not a personal thing. There is no headship envy. I know that I would be completely hopeless in such a role. I would forget to let staff know that Ofsted were coming in, I would undoubtedly fall asleep in evening meetings with governors and I would spend far too many millions of the budget on buying a low-league swashbuckling midfielder to bolster the staff’s ageing football team. We would just keep them on show in the foyer. 

No, I just question whether the one leader, “monarchical” model of school leadership – in place since feudal times – is still the right default system of leadership in a modern school? It seems too risky a system to me. While some of us may have been lucky enough to work under a fine head we all know of many disappointing and disastrous instances elsewhere. 

Too many poor appointments just seem inevitable under this system, especially given the limited pool of people now applying for the job. The limited number of applicants is itself a product of that high-stakes monarchical system. Given the exceptional qualities required, this model of leadership should be replaced by a collectively-based form of leadership.

Yes, the traditional “monarch” model can work well. Many schools thrive under heads who are admirably wise, kind, principled, consultative and approachable, supported by smart, selfless governors. However, it’s a huge gamble every time and some schools inevitably end up with heads who may, at best, bring nothing extra to a school and, at worst, heap years of desperation and misery on staff with unrealistic demands, targets and procedures.

When it does start to go wrong the problems at such schools are exacerbated by the fact that, as crowned monarch, the head naturally feels personally responsible for the school’s overall performance. The result is that many a bright, able, well-intentioned and previously admired senior leader is “turned” by the intense pressure of headship. Many so-called “failed heads”, “bullies”, “disasters” etc could have remained magnificent, wise and respected co-leaders if they had simply remained as part of a shared leadership.    

The alternative model might consist of the senior team in the school – curriculum, pastoral, financial etc – running things as now and sharing out all the “head’s” own additional responsibilities and roles. Decisions would be taken at senior team meetings, which would also include a few elected representatives from the teaching staff, TAs, trade unions and should probably include a robot senior leader one day to provide some instant calculations and projections. All of this would mean leadership and decisions based on shared and accumulated wisdom. This just seems a safer bet? (Wouldn’t work for very small schools, admittedly.)    

During an “interregnum” at a previous school I put such a view to the chair of governors. She hesitated for a moment before suggesting that a school needed one person to provide the “vision” and to be a “figurehead”. I disagree. I think the notion of a figurehead is outdated and adds to the singular pressures already outlined. People think there needs to be a figurehead simply because that’s what they are used to, in the same way that carnivores assume a meal requires a slice of meat to complete it. 

As for “vision”, a group of people (and a robot) can easily develop an ambitious, realistic, shared and supported mission. Why assume one person can come up with something better?  

Now is surely the time to consider such a change. Many of the wisest and smartest in our ranks are – quite understandably – not applying for the role of headteacher. This surely presents us with a solution rather than a problem. Start to put an end to the role and put in place something much more likely to bring out the best – rather than the worst – in bright and able leaders in our midst.

Stephen Petty is head of humanities at Lord Williams’s School in Thame, Oxfordshire

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