Agenda

30th January 1998 at 00:00
Joan Sallis answers your questions

Q.

Our new head knows I am writing. I am impressed with him after six months but he knows - we all know - that vibes from the community are not good. A few governors who were involved in the appointment still think we chose well, but the rest, I'm afraid, take their lead from school-gate babble. It's a stuffy community, full of families who have come up in the world, make shallow judgments of people based on their dress, how they speak, and their style generally. The old head played up to this. I never thought much of him and the performance of the school is mediocre, but his image was good, discipline was firm and the school had the mannerisms of a superior institution. Older staff respected him and the imminent departure of a few - because of normal retirement - is misunderstood.

The new head is a rough diamond. He came from a community school in an industrial area, is a plain speaker, has no time for prefects, prize days, house points, setting, and for two pins I think he'd do away with uniform which would be the last straw. Yet he has already spotted areas of underperformance, a boygirl gap in achievement bigger than the normal, out-of-date teaching methods, and is making changes. How can we help?

A.

I know a new head has to be careful not to postpone necessary change too long. But I'd be a bit concerned about one, of whatever style, who made quite such an impact in six months. It's a time for a lot of talking and listening, identifying the best things from the past, getting a few allies and building up trust all round. It's not easy to assimilate a head who represents a culture different from the present one, and although I know it is sometimes essential it needs skilled handling and very good communication, bearing in mind that few staff or parents are going to like being classed by implication as museum pieces.

You may not agree, but I don't think there's any point in antagonising people about things of less than first importance. There are good schools with prize-days and housepoints - though they aren't my style either - just as there are bad ones with informal and unhierarchical styles. The discussion at first should not move far from the quality of learning and experience available to the students, and governors are crucial in this. The most vital thing in your head's fight for a hearing - and if he doesn't get a hearing he's lost - is to transmit his genuine concern for these young people and their future which puts him shoulder to shoulder with parents. They are confused and frightened by the change of style and need a lot of reassurance. It doesn't sound as though your head has found much time for communication, and meanwhile it's better to add features of obvious value to the school than remove those which in his eyes have none.

You must make regular opportunities for him to talk to parents and give priority to good newsletters about the things being discussed with governors and staff as well as actual happenings.

In general the head needs to convince people that he is building on what's good in the school and not writing off the past. When he is bringing in new features he needs to choose ones which clearly add to the good things the school offers. People can't help having limited horizons and their fear when landmarks are removed is very real. Nevertheless they respond readily to attractive additions.

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