Can headship bear examination?

3rd November 1995 at 00:00
Dean Bell, Bryan Robson, Kevin Keegan, Andy Gregory: a litany of top-class performers turned coach. Who could learn a volley from a coaching manual? Recognising class acts and making them into top-flight coaches is a skill best demonstrated by executives of breweries and millionaire soccer fans. How can it be applied to developing potential for headship?

There is a national shortage of university tutors, Office for Standards in Education inspectors or LEA advisers who have (a) run a school budget; (b) implemented a school development plan; (c) recently taught a class and (d) made a home visit in a deprived urban environment.

I can (with some cynicism) appreciate that specific common skills can be identified in those heads seen to be running "good" schools. I can also be tempted, on a quiet day, to believe those skills can be coached when the subject has already demonstrated key attributes - strength of character would be at the top of my list. I would not be easily convinced that a Government-approved examination would place independent thought as the cornerstone of a curriculum for potential headteachers.

I have been most severely tested in my interactions with officialdom and have often found the official view did little to benefit our pupils. An academic, textbook, local education authority (Tim Brighouse is the exception) or Government view of headship would limit horizons, patent imagination and undoubtedly stifle initiative.

Coaching is about being exposed to, influenced by, in the sunshine glow of, not about cloning. While I have been a head, six colleagues have moved to headships but they were not necessarily the best teachers. Five were male and they were competent. Some worked hard. But how will we improve schools if most of our heads are male, aged around 40, with an MEd, often sports-orientated. We could produce an identikit for a primary head: take the soccer team; do not teach key stage 1; do an external MEd; take the residential trips; change school every two or three years.

I have met heads who seem genuinely frightened of budget management. One can no longer blame "the office" for the absence of funds, the loss of a teacher, the introduction of training days, the structure of the holidays. After three headships over 16 years, I learn more every day from able colleagues, sometimes stressed and struggling parents, and articulate, friendly kids than I have ever learned in a lecture or from a management book. I too have followed the traditional routes and courses, but I still remain sceptical about examining what I do or how I coach my senior management team.

Heads recognise skills and management styles which adapt to culture and location. We fully appreciate the application of styles in vastly different contexts. Will there be different examination boards for Catholic inner-city, state suburbia, Jewish Stamford Hill, Manchester cultural melting pot, Hackney or Hampstead Heath?

Course content would have to include financial management; personnel and employment law; health and safety; child protection; curriculum development; marketing; public speaking; governing bodies; appraisal and staff appointments; the learning process and a recognition of vital influences upon a child's functioning.

I could develop a theoretical framework for this course but I could not adequately test the core skills of vision, courage, dedication and sheer bloody-mindedness. Teachers are more successful than schools. Schools need to outnumber the ordinary, the unimaginative and the time-servers with the very best so that we move forward together.

Let's see if Tim Brighouse, Professor John West Burnham and half a dozen outstanding reception teachers can be persuaded to plan and deliver the programme for potential heads.

Effective local appraisal, short (three-to-five-year) contracts, local benchmark standards, school self-analysis, parental surveys and pupil opinions would all be effective tools in moving schools forward. There is a great deal of opportunity in the coming together of heads, senior management teams, quality classroom practitioners and imaginative governing bodies, within LEAs which can define the context and vision without being overtly officious. It is the total package which impacts upon children's lives.

Michael Carolan is head of Hurst School, a special education needs resource centre and language unit in St Helens, Merseyside.

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