Can't teach now, there's a crisis to sort out

29th September 2000 at 01:00
A computing games specialist was featured on television as a particularly enterprising chap. When asked the secret of his success, he declared without hesitation that attention to his main business activity was paramount. "If you don't concentrate on your core business, you're sunk," was his philosophical mantra.

The last few weeks have amply demonstrated the mesmerising sequence of distractions which impede us from focusing on teaching young people.

During the summer holidays, a marauding posse of local nutters allegedly set fire to a sizeable chunk of McLaren High School. This prematurely summoned the headteacher, the present Mrs Sweeney, back to her duties, rudely intruding on the Sweeney holiday plans. The subsequent investigation and planning for reinstatement of the building created a procession of police officers, insurance company representatives and building contractors at the headteacher's door. Senior managers recognise that they have responsibilities beyond term time, but the extent of demands on headteachers in holidays and out of hours is frequently unappreciated.

The entire brouhaha over SQA usurped our attention as we set our sights on a flying start to the new term. Reassuring pupils, answering enquiries from parents, communicating with these brave souls who manned the SQA bunker - all of this eroded our time and prevented us from getting down to our real business. Press enquiries also took their toll, although I am more sympathetic to their approaches now that I have been initiated as an amateur member of the scribbling fraternity.

Before the torrent of indignation over botched exam results subsided, Unison declared a series of one-day strikes in support of a wages claim.

Their cause is eminently justified as the remuneration offered to support staff in schools is ignominiously low. However, when Mr Blair gets down to his "root and branch" revision of education in Britain, he needs to take a hard look at how suppor services are delivered to schools. He may discover that the quality is unacceptably variable, and that ancillary services can be a relentless drag on the energies of heads and teaching staff. There have been almost as many words written and more meetings held about cleaning in Holy Rood than about learning and teaching.

McCrone has made a promising start by boldly recommending the creation of a properly trained and rewarded school bursar at senior level to handle financial and business matters. The building and its facilities also need to be actively and expertly managed to maintain in top working condition an increasingly expensive resource.

Property issues, repairs to computers, cleaning, catering and technical support should all be handled by a properly geared-up facilities manager. This may be an individual or organisation contracted by the education authority. While a number of possible models are feasible, a sine qua non would be that services do the business allocated to them. If they are employed to clean, they clean.

The fuel crisis has created a further diversion. The main issue here was transport for pupils. Around half of our 950 pupils are delivered by school buses and their arrival and departure constitute treasured moments in the daily routine of Holy Rood's senior management team. Both Lothian Regional Transport and McKendry's, our contractors, managed to keep the wagons rolling, but the disruption to public bus services made a severe dent in our attendance, encouraging some of our less determined alumni to have an illicit day or two of leisure.

Headteachers urgently need to be emancipated from trivia to concentrate on learning and teaching. A recent advert invited teachers to join MI5 as undercover investigators. Can you imagine the state of the security services if secret agents squandered their time on cleaning and repairing their hideouts?

Pat Sweeney is headteacher of Holy Rood High School, Edinburgh

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