Best practice rests with a good principal

18th March 2005 at 00:00
Recently we got rid of our principal teachers. The benefits to the school may be realised in the months and years to come.

It was only for a day and while they were gone, the rest of us had a merry old time. The hope is that our separation may strengthen the school as we continue, re-united, trying to deliver quality to our pupils.

Looking for inventive ways to move the school on, we identified the role of principal teacher in a secondary school as central and wanted to consider it in the light of professional changes since the most recent teachers'


There appears to be a gap between expectations placed on our principal teacher colleagues and their own vision of their responsibilities. So it seemed important that they should get together to reflect as a group on where they stand professionally. A highly experienced facilitator worked with them to help keep a focus on their day's activities.

The fruits of their labour will be seen as time passes, but I hope they appreciate how valued their role is in the school. I'm reminded of the observation that the role of principal teacher is the most rewarding promoted post in the secondary sector. If it is rewarding, that implies it is being well done. But what makes an effective principal teacher, apart from good organisation and sound administration?

I have experienced a range of probationers developing in the school and have seen how principals have enhanced their year: strong curricular guidance, contact with key policies and procedures, awareness of the probationers' early strengths and immediate needs, divulging the secrets of good pupil management, broadening the perspective beyond one department, encouraging the colleague to participate in whole-school activities. And that's just a start.

Probationers working with principal teachers who actively support their development have progressed apace. It has happened in previous years, and it is doing so again now.

I've touched on ethos before, but in running a highly successful department, principal teachers touch on ethos constantly - in their care for pupils, in how they handle situations when the temperature may be about to rise, and in supporting colleagues, almost by instinct, who may be in need of that arm to lean on.

Good principal teachers are smiling and have a ready welcome. They carry the trust of pupils and the loyalty of their department and, often, are unaware of either. In performing their daily tasks, they provide the backbone of a succeeding school.

They accept the need for rigour in quality assurance and carry out the tasks that underpin this. To do so without fear or favour requires strength of character and a vision that puts pupils first. Where it is done well, classroom teachers are on board because, yes, there are departmental expectations, but there is also clarity and openness.

Best practice begins when the principal teacher's efforts are visibly under the same scrutiny as those of all staff. In these cases, the standards are being set for colleagues to follow.

My depute head with SQA responsibilities will crown me if I don't mention meeting deadlines. His ageing process accelerates when he meets with procrastination in these critical situations. Meeting such deadlines is a sign that the house is in good order.

Finally, there's the ability to cope with change. That inservice day was an acknowledgment that, for all of us, events have moved our profession on and the time to look back has well and truly gone. Hopefully, one outcome of the day will be senior management working more closely with departmental heads towards shared goals that will benefit all the children we serve.

Rod O'Donnell is headteacher of St Paul's High, GlasgowIf you have any comments, email

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