Talking shop

Former headteacher Gerald Haigh gets to the heart of the issues that concern you.

Q In my junior school this summer we had more than the usual number of requests from parents of children coming from the infants wanting their child to sit with friends, not to sit with friends, to be in a different class from friends, or to be in the same class with friends. It was really difficult to balance all of this and take into account the views of the infant teachers. We want to work out a general policy so that we are more prepared next summer. How should we proceed?

A For good or ill, parents are increasingly likely to make requests about the way we teach and manage their children. Appearances are important, so make sure that parents see you are tackling the allocation of children to classes seriously and thoughtfully. If they think, however mistakenly, that you just make random lists, you are asking for criticism.

One school in your position sends a form to new parents asking them to name the children they'd like their own child to be with. "It's not possible to say yes to all requests," says the head, "but the vast majority of parents are happy to have been asked, and understand the complexity of the task when it's explained. Only a very few persist, and ultimately I may just have to say that it's our decision."

Perhaps you could be guided by the practice in secondary schools, where management is used to handling disagreements with parents - for example, about choice of exam courses. They usually make it plain in writing that, although they'll take parental views into account, the final decision lies with the school. Where there's a real problem, an equivalent statement could be made in friendly but firm style. A clear written policy, agreed with governors, can be supportive when there's difficulty.

But parental requests should always be taken seriously - they see more of their children than you do - and you can always say, "Let's see how it goes and talk again at half term."

Q A colleague of ours was appointed to a new job in a nearby school last term. At the last moment she had second thoughts and withdrew, leaving the school in difficulty three days before the end of term. As her job hadn't been filled, she was allowed back here. We all have different feelings about this. Some think she's been unprofessional; others say, "There but for the Grace of GodI" What do you think?

A There's the question of possible breach of a contractual agreement (regardless of whether any papers were signed), although it's probably vanishingly rare for the law to be invoked - a head won't want someone on the staff who doesn't want to be there.

So probably at worst local heads will know about this, and your colleague's immediate future prospects may well be damaged. I know I'd be wary about offering her a job - partly because I would not like what she'd done to a fellow head, and partly for the more practical reason that she might do the same to me.

One reason for this happening in the first place is that, for some, the job hunt takes on a life of its own. Then, when it's successful, initial euphoria gives way to, "What on earth have I done?"

The lesson is that when you're called for interview, spend time making sure it's really the job you're looking for. Do research, visit the school, talk to colleagues and family. Then on interview day, if you feel you're not thirsting for the job, consider putting your head in the room before it's your turn and withdrawing from the interview. Funnily enough, interviewing panels are usually quite happy about this - they admire your courage, and they also know they've had a narrow escape from exactly the state of affairs described in your question.

Q I'm about to change my car and could just about achieve a life-time ambition to own a Jaguar. But part of me says that a Jag just isn't right for a primary deputy head - it's further up the social ladder than I am, as it were. And should I be setting a better example environmentally?

A You'll get some negative reaction all right - but most of it will be jokey, and a thick skin will see you through. Some of it will be jealousy, which you can safely ignore. One head I know keeps a chauffeur's hat in his Jag, which he wears when giving lifts to colleagues. It's valuable for lightening the tone.

And don't worry too much about setting an environmental example, because if you really can only just afford your Jag, you won't have enough cash left to drive it far.

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