Buffeted by perils on the seas

1st November 1996 at 00:00
It is too late now, the moment has passed, but the advertising literature for the half-term management school offered an intriguing way of keeping heads and teachers out of mischief. Gluttons for punishment were invited to spend their half-term on a course.

"You deserve a development opportunity but you can't leave your pupils during the school week," said the blurb. The solution was to go on the half-term management course. It summed up one of the problems for people who work in education: they are buried under demands of one kind or another, but have little time to reflect on them.

Small wonder that so few people apply for headships nowadays. One secondary school attracted no serious applicants the first time its headship was advertised. Another vacancy, in a large secondary school in an attractive location, had received more than l50 applications when it was last advertised in the mid 1980s. This year there were just 17.

The literature on school effectiveness often identifies the headteacher as a key factor in successful schools. There is another side to this coin, however. In the blame culture in which we now live, if all is not well, then the head takes the rap. Perhaps an honest advert for the job ought to state: "Wanted: barmy, broad-shouldered masochist. The successful candidate will be pilloried whenever fertiliser hits the fan."

Headteacher as football manager is one of many roles attached to a senior post. Football managers are of several kinds. The survivors are both knowledgeable and phlegmatic, usually good at dealing with people inside and outside their organisation.

Almost all the best football managers have been sacked at some time in their career. They took the blame for circumstances that were often beyond their control, like having no money to buy decent players, or pay sufficient wages to the ones they had.

The daily pressures sometimes led them into becoming "characters". Brian Clough, the former Nottingham Forest manager, was regarded as irascible, but he gave considerable confidence to players who were unsure of themselves, while reprimanding those who thought they knew it all. Differentiation is not just something that happens in teaching.

Pressures on headteachers to come top of the performance leagues have brought the football manager analogy closer. I met a teacher who complained that her school had had four heads in as many years, well up to football manager standards.

One of the four had simply announced that she would not be coming into school the following Monday. This is known as the Auf Wiedersehen solution. In this case Auf Wiedersehen means "I'll be seeing you - but not in school".

There are many other roles that headteachers play. One is that of karaoke singer. If you have ever attempted the noble art of karaoke, you will know that the pre-recorded music ploughs remorselessly on, even if you lose your place, choke on the high notes, or collapse with mirth at the lyrics. Headship can be like singing to a karaoke machine, chasing an unstoppable, externally set agenda, even if your shoe-laces are tied together.

This aspect of headship reminds me of the time that Morecambe and Wise had Andre Previn on their programme. Eric Morecambe played a piece of music on the piano. It was a grotesque mess. Andre Previn screwed his face up at the cacophony, accusing Morecambe of playing the wrong notes. "I am playing the right notes," Morecambe insisted "but not necessarily in the right order. "

The world of music also offers rich comparisons with being a headteacher. One role is that of "head as Viennese conductor". There is a tradition in Vienna of the conductor, usually a talented violinist, joining in Strauss waltzes, by waving his bow and playing his violin with the orchestra. I am not sure what double bass or tuba playing conductors do in the circumstances, but the evident enjoyment of the leader is infectious.

The enthusiastic participant Viennese conductor role has become harder to play, and many heads lament having less time to teach classes than they once had. A weak substitute is that of the "singing telegram", whereby the head joins in activities occasionally, when asked, often as part of a celebration or special event.

The story is told of the postman who took a telegram to a house. "Will you sing it to me?" the recipient asked. "I'm afraid this is not a singing telegram service, sir," the postman replied. "Oh, go on," the man insisted, "just this once". "Very well," the postman replied reluctantly, "di dum di dum di dum di dum. Your Auntie Mary's dead."

Being the bearer of bad tidings is a difficult chore, especially when the financial situation becomes known and decisions about cutbacks or staff redundancies have to be announced. Many heads are very good communicators, but there is no way that some pieces of bad news can be dressed up to make them good news. "The bad news is we've got no money. But the good news is we won't have to worry about how to spend it."

All that said, the truth is that giving effective leadership in education has never been more important. A few years ago I knew a man who was a redcoat in a holiday camp. His hardest job was to sing "Good Morning campers" the day after working into the early hours and then having a few drinks to relax. Next morning, headache and all, smiling throughout, he would trill the banal lyrics through clenched teeth.

The next time you see a head beaming and singing vigorously "For those in peril" during morning assembly, just remember it might be someone valiantly playing the role of "headteacher as hung-over redcoat".

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