Bruised by leadership

12th May 1995 at 01:00
The doctor twice interrupted my list of symptoms. "What else?" Five minutes into the consultation she cut me off completely. "You haven't booked a double appointment, there's no time." Upset and ashamed, I drove from the surgery to Stanground where I spent the remaining hours of the Easter holiday at the home of a pupil. Adopting my passive, obliging mode, which does not come easily, I soaked up the family's distress before negotiating the action plan which may resolve their complaint about us.

Headteachers are expected, most of all by themselves, to be supermen and women, never ill, never weary, never stressed, never cynical, never bruised to the soul. My efforts to sustain this leadership model have become desperate.

At Easter, to prove my youth and fitness, I completed 50 miles of the Peak marathon in under 15 hours. I arrive at Stanground early in the morning and leave late. My paperwork is done the same day, I hide my emotions better than ever. I tell myself that I have survived cuts, industrial action, LMS and GMS. Why should OFSTED be different?

But my body tells another story. Here is someone in the grip of remorseless conscientiousness. The bowels are loose, constipated or turbulent; the hiatus hernia chokes on acid foods; the head aches with eye-strain and lost sleep; the tongue tastes sour or dry; the heels are eaten away by fungus.

I have soaked up other people's angst for years and the mark is on me. It's like a rubgy match where you don't notice the bruises until afterwards. The league tables, the cross parents, the disappointed staff, the long hours, this chasing after the rainbow, this damned impossible job - they're rusting my steel and rotting my soft bendy willow from the inside out.

My body and the school's merge as our OFSTED inspection looms. Doctor, there's nothing seriously wrong, is there? Inspector, we're OK aren't we? That churning isn't an ulcer, is it? our discipline isn't that bad, is it? I don't want to go for tests. Let me off, please let me off. Tell me what I've done wrong, I promise I'll change. These are anxious times.

This child-like desperation carried me to the surgery, but once inside I stumbled over my story. What could I say? I'm 48-years-old and scared of the inquisition? I'm in excellent health but have all these symptoms? So I talked about drug therapies and athlete's foot. As I left, I felt rebuked for wasting time with hypochondria, ashamed to be demanding attention without cause, angry with myself for letting an undignified weakness show.

Fortunately, the occasional spasm in my nether regions, even when accompanied by a craven desire to confess my sins to doctors, inspectors and others in authority, has not disabled my critical instinct. The villain of this piece is the new-style public service created by the Government. Doctors, nurses, teachers and administrators are stretched on the rack, expected to treat or educate growing numbers with diminishing resources. Stern targets are set as the money runs out. Classrooms and clinics are filled with people damaged by 15 years of divisive politics and ruinous economics.

The authors of the disaster blame the healers and educators for the wreckage. But the truth is that there is no time for a proper job and a sick society threatens to make us all ill.

Bernard Barker is principal of Stanground College, Peterborough.

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today