A meeting of minds

12th January 2001 at 00:00
Carefully-laid plans, dark talk of sabotage - Dennis Richards reveals the committee politics that NQTs must learn.

Mmost new heads soon learn that it is in their interest to have as few staff meetings as possible. New teachers don't know the rules either but, with a little care and attention, you'll pick them up fairly quickly. This is the way it goes: senior staff will usually endeavour to use one of three tactics. Essential to all three is a strict control of the agenda. Tactic number one, for example: all items to the head's secretary by 9am on Monday at least a week before the meeting.

This stricture is usually hidden somewhere deep in the staff handbook between the governors' charging policy and the wet dinner break procedure. And with any luck, the staff are so knackered by marking, reports, filling in threshold assessment forms and performance management interviews, that the days pass in a blur and the deadline is missed. The deputy head furtively creeps into the staffroom during Monday morning assembly, posts the notice, "Staff meeting cancelled due to lack of agenda items", and beats a hasty retreat.

This is by far the happiest solution, although it can lead to a charge of cowardice. The beauty of it lies in the confusion it creates in the hearts of the staffroom stirrers. Only one thing appeals to them more than a bit of senior staff baiting: being home in time for Neighbours.

The tactic fails when the whingers and stirrers come together and agree to co-ordinate their strategies. It is also at risk if a particularly assiduous NQT reads the staff handbook as a weekend leisure activity and concludes that suggesting staff meeting agenda items is a good career move. It is not. Wise NQTs keep their counsel for at least a year, study all the participants carefully and only make a move when convinced a "who the hell is this?" response is not going to come from all sides of the room.

Tactic number two comes into play on the rare occasions that a full staff meeting can no longer be avoided. You will soon become aware that the agenda always begins with "information". This may well have come about because one of the staffroom disaffected (or a naive NQT) carelessly slipped in a general whinge about "lack of communication" some time in the early Nineties. Senior staff have gleefully seized on the complaint and now pack at least two-thirds of the time available with information until the safe haven of the 5pm deadline hovers into sight.

Experienced players, of course, know what the real game is. The back left-hand corne of the room is manoeuvring to get the agenda round to workload as soon as possible - but, hopefully, not too obviously. NQTs who haven't slept properly for weeks need to exercise particular care when the buzzword is finally spoken. There will be deep murmurs of assent, but, to your surprise, the revolt is led by the staffroom card school. Murmur if you wish but, above all, keep schtum.

The end result will be a pact under which both sides agree to blame David Blunkett and suggest the cancellation of the next meeting as a concession to the workload demands on all of us.

But there is no such easy outcome when the rebels manage to release the other lurking monster from its cage to sabotage the SMT's carefully-laid plans. Discipline and standards. Even workload comes nowhere near to raising the same passion and ire. This is one of the first moments of truth for the career-minded NQT.

Most of you will start your careers vaguely ambitious. Here, starkly, is your choice. Suddenly the grey suits at the front have lost their sheen; plans and policies are in abeyance as the temperature rises. So you want to be a deputy head? Well what are you going to do about uniform then? The girls' skirts are in orbit, Darren has been in trainers since Year 7, what is our policy on shirts being tucked inI because, whatever it is, it's not working. The kids are rude, the sanctions don't work.

But, dear NQT, do you want your career to come to this? A baying harridan on the back row venting your spleen? Faces are red with rage and veins are in danger of popping, but 5pm is approaching and a measure of calm returns.

And so to tactic number three. The peacemakers will propose that a working party is formed to examine the issues further. Everyone will seize on this proposal with relief; something has been achieved. The SMT will already be mentally forming the group's membership and proposing interim reports. It is especially important that reports are interim - then we are not actually committed to doing anything.

Meanwhile, at the next staff meeting, we will break into smaller groups and, totally by coincidence, the most vociferous rebels have been dispersed. In such a forum, even the most timorous NQT can essay a debut contribution. But avoid workload and avoid trainers. You are still too inexperienced to play in that game. Anyway, you will soon note that several reports and passionate debates later, Darren is by now in Year 11I and he's still wearing trainers.

Dennis Richards is head of St Aidan's C of E high school, Harrogate.

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