Angry for peace
Chris McDonnell is a quiet but passionate man. On the outside, there is efficiency and confidence. Talk to him for a while, though, and you feel the heat of genuine regretful anger about what has happened to schools, teachers and children in recent years.
At the root of this is his conviction that teaching is a special calling, deeply satisfying to be part of but carrying huge responsibilities. Explaining this, McDonnell, head of Fulfen primary school in Burntwood, Staffordshire, keeps coming back to the word "integrity". "There's an integrity about the job, an honesty about it," he says. "It comes from an appreciation of its importance and a personal commitment to it." Striving to explain further, he returns a phrase that is actually a personal mission statement: "Schools should be places of wisdom, not factories of knowledge."
Good teachers, in his view, strive to understand the children in their charge and to make the best professional judgments they can about how to deal with them, in and out of class. Now, though, teachers are told to do things that may well run counter to those best judgments - the task of teaching is being sewn up and "teacher proofed".
"I think this is what hurts so many of us," McDonnell says. "We're asked to do so many things where that integrity is not being respected. There are so many initiatives coming from outside that limit the freedom and the inspiration of the teachers. We know and trust our own experience but we feel constrained to work in a particular way. I feel I'm not running this patch so much as responding to outside pressures."
For example, he dislikes the prescriptively linear structure of the national curriculum, with its key stages and levels.
"Children simply do not move from A to B to C like that," he says. "There are quantum jumps and we should be able to respond. But the time is so tight that people don't have the chance."
As an experienced head - Fulfen is his third headship since 1978 - he has enough confidence to speak, write and sometimes act on his convictions. In a letter to The Times earlier this month, he responded to an article in which Chris Woodhead, the chief inspectorof schools, underlined the crucial role of the head as an engine of school improvement.
"We have known for some time what makes a good headteacher," McDonnell wrote, referring to the work of Peter Mortimore in the Eighties. "What is different between then and now is the external pressures that headteachers face."
Suiting action to the words, he held the literacy hour at bay for a year, believing there was nothing to be gained from haste. What was needed, he thought, was a pause - a time for reflection. "Such a headlong rush is unseemly and unnecessary.
"We spent a year planning, just putting our toes in the water. I told the authority what I was doing: they knew what our standards were and that I wasn't being bolshie for the sake of it."
McDonnell is a south Londoner by birth. He did A-levels in science and mathematics and then went to ICI Plastics in Welwyn Garden City, working on the then emerging technique of infra-red spectroscopy. Then teaching beckoned: "Hard to say why at this distance," he says. "Probably to do with my conviction that teaching is a vocation."
In 1961, he went to St Mary's College, Twickenham, where he trained as a secondary maths specialist. He taught maths in Roman Catholic schools, first in London and then in Leeds, where he married Anne. They have two daughters and a son, now grown up, and two grandchildren, one of whom was eagerly awaited when we met (now safely delivered).
After Leeds, he moved to Wallasey as a head of maths in a middle school. Having gonsecondary to middle, he took an advanced diploma at Liverpool University, specialising in primary, and then became deputy head of Our Lady of Pity RC primary at Greasby on the Wirral. In 1978 came his first headship, at St Joseph's RC primary inRugeley, Staffordshire, where he stayed for seven years.
In 1985, he left the Catholic system after 20 years to be head of Springhill middle school in Burntwood, just off the A5 north of Birmingham. He is diplomatic about the move, but is clearly saddened by the way some Catholic schools are troubled by tensions between church leaders and heads. "There was a slight disagreement" is all he will say. "I'm still a Catholic head, in the state system," he adds.
In 1988, Staffordshire middle schools were reorganised out of existence and McDonnell became head of Fulfen, which now has a roll of 370 pupils.
A distinguishing feature of his 22 years of headship has been his constant desire to look outwards beyond his own school, to have a broader vision. "I've always tried to look over the fence at the larger picture," he says. "We can be very parochial. I'm the person who can make connections with the outside world."
He has made this work at many levels. In 1992, he contributed a chapter on headship to Mortimore's book The Primary Head. He has written on school assemblies and numerous, varied articles for The TES and others, as well as produced maths workbooks.
For 10 years until last year, he was Staffordshire secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, becoming particularly involved in the fight to achieve fairer funding for county authorities. And it was he who tabled a motion of no confidence in Chris Woodhead at the first of the association's conferences of the Blair regime. "I ended up putting the NAHT's views to Nick Clarke on World at One, just before Woodhead and Tim Brighouse came on," he recalls.
In another call on his skills, he has been asked to join a partnership of experienced practitioners working with Leicester in the wake of that authority'scritical inspection report.
The latest and perhaps most heartening of his "over the school wall" initiatives is a link, supported by the EuropeanCommunity, that Fulfen is developing with Scoil Mhuire, a primary school in Dublin - his father's home town. A recent statement by McDonnell and Tadgh Mac Phaidin, the Dublin head, expressed regret at the stalling of the peace process in Northern Ireland, adding: "There is enthusiasm and excitement that our pupils, staff and the wider school community may contribute in a small way to building confidence between our two countries."
The search for such links undoubtedly relates to his feeling - common to many heads - that classrooms are now so different that he can no longer see himself as the leading teacher. "I expect the staff to do what I can no longer do effectively," says McDonnell. "My job is to provide a framework in which they can work."
The pupils clearly know him and greet him affably. His hand is visible in all sorts of ways: the colourful and ubiquitous "What did you learn in school today?" posters at Fulfen are not simply wall decorations but a statement of his core vision. A collection of thoughts he made for his colleagues last November ends: "Children need pauses in the pace of a lesson as well as time at the end to summarise together what has been taught and, hopefully, learnt. 'What did you learn in school today?' will then become an integral part of our teaching and not just a poster on theclassroom wall."
True wisdom, McDonnell would say, comes from these reflective moments, as necessary for heads and teachers who, like him, have put government initiatives on hold, as they are for their pupils. The real question is whether anyone in government takes time to reflect on the changes within our schools.