Bickering heads mind the sheep

12th May 2006 at 01:00
Here's a scenario for you. You're head of a school on two sites, it's too far to walk to the other building from your office, and roads around are traffic-clogged. Sometimes days go by and you don't make it.

This is a nagging worry for you, because you're a great believer in being a presence around the place. You're sure that at the other site, as a result, things are not quite as you'd like.

When you do go, as often as not you find yourself picking up litter around the front door. Sometimes there's no one on reception, and as you walk around you often encounter children who haven't any credible reason for being out of class. The building's looking more tatty than it should, too.

The hall floor doesn't shine like the one in "your" building and the toilets pong. It's not that anyone's doing anything wrong - more that there's little evidence of pride, of going the extra mile. At first, you hardly notice these things, but then one or two other people make comments about it, and before long the whole thing starts to bug you. So, you decide it's time to do something.

One obvious way forward is to put someone unequivocally in charge. However, you can't expect one person to add the responsibility to an existing brief, so you move two senior colleagues over there, creating a new office for them out of an underused storeroom, and making them jointly responsible, directly to you, for behaviour and for management of the site.

Job done? Well, yes, but as time goes on you wonder if you've done the right thing. Things improve a bit, but not as much, or as quickly, as you'd hoped. The two assistant heads certainly seem to be keen enough. They get on well, too. In fact, when you go over there, you often find them together, having coffee in the staffroom, or in their shared office looking at papers, or, occasionally walking the corridors in animated conversation.

Eventually you start to wonder if the good relationship between them is part of the problem, and it's at that point that you go to the video shop to hire Brokeback Mountain. You watch it in a very thoughtful mood, and over a drink afterwards, pressed by your partner about your apparently morose quietness, you express your concern.

"That film's really made me wonder about those two I put in our other building." Your partner rears back in alarm, and you hasten to give reassurance.

"Don't be daft. I don't mean anything personal. This isn't rural Wyoming.

No, the lesson of that story that interests me is that because the two guys, er, get on well, the sheep didn't get properly looked after. The problem would've been the same if they'd both been mad on stamp collecting.

They'd be happily messing about with stamps while the coyotes were eating the sheep."

"Your two assistant heads aren't philatelists are they?" asks your partner innocently.

"I'll ignore that. The thing is, they're so much on the same wavelength professionally that there's very little debate or disagreement between them. One of them suggests something, and the other immediately agrees.

Then they spend half an hour eagerly telling each other what a good idea it is."

"Surely that's a good thing. It means they're not wasting time arguing and having to come to you to sort out disagreements?"

"Fine, but it also means they spend too much time having self-congratulatory conversations, instead of getting on with the job. At the moment, I guess if one goes into the office or the staffroom and sees the other there, they just smile and start nattering. I'd rather one of them turned straight round and went off to do something else."

"You want them to disagree?"

"Why not? It's called creative tension. One person making frank and professional assessments, criticisms and comments on another person's work.

A bit of creative tension would have saved more of the sheep up that mountain."

"Is that how you saw the film?"

"Didn't you? I know what I should have done."

"And that is?"

"I shouldn't have let one building become my HQ. I should have an office in both places and divide my time equally. Lord knows, there's enough technology -intranet, video links, wireless-enabled PDAs - to make that happen."

"Start Monday then?"

"Yeeeee HAH!"

Gerald Haigh is a former headteacher

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