Confused by head's anger

7th January 2005 at 00:00
Pat Denison answers your leadership questions.

I'm a Year 6 teacher, a literacy co-ordinator in my third year at a school with "serious weaknesses". I have, so far, led literacy development very effectively; our results improved by 20 per cent. Last year we could not sustain this improvement because during the time I set aside for revision, our most able pupils were removed to practise for a local music festival.

During my performance target-setting review this autumn, I requested that this not happen again. The headteacher became very angry and he said that the children needed a broad, balanced curriculum and the sooner national tests and league tables were abolished, the better. I feel slighted because I work very hard to achieve a balanced curriculum, but Sats do become a priority between Easter and May. I only want to do my best for the children.

I see your dilemma. Presumably you are setting challenging targets for your pupils, the outcomes of which inform judgements on your performance. It is quite understandable that you want to have measurable results which demonstrate the value you are adding. It would also be seemly for any school, particularly one with serious weaknesses, to make every effort to raise standards. You are doubtless confused. Are your hopes and aspirations for the children the same as the head's? The criteria may be different.

Your letter raised some questions for me. You don't say whether the head has been in post for long. I am wondering whether the "serious weaknesses" category was applied under his jurisdiction, or whether he took up the post later and has set out to make some significant changes.

To make judgements about learning we need to look at the quality, breadth and balance of experience the pupils are getting and how they are responding to it. We're looking for evidence of skills, knowledge and attitudes which tell us how significant the learning is, how deep it is and how sustainable - a type of learning which is infinitely more substantial than simple tests can show. It could be that your head is determined to create and develop that kind of learning and is resisting the temptation to put in place a quick-fix solution to convince those who measure a school by its Sats scores that the school is getting better.

Every decision a headteacher makes is informed by a moral perspective, and it could be that your head has deeply-held convictions about the quality of experience which he believes is every child's right. It is a risky line of action to insist on this at the expense of what might be a cosmetic massaging of Sats scores which rely on mechanistic formulaic "revision". In any case, it is true to say that a school can remain in serious weaknesses and be near the top of a league table. Some schools do sacrifice learning for doing well in tests, and it is certainly possible to teach children a formula for performing well under test conditions. This kind of revision cannot enhance the learning process.

However, it is never appropriate to undermine a teacher who is working hard to achieve the very best, and I do wonder what caused the head to be so angry. It is important that you articulate your confusion; you need to understand the head's values and beliefs, and he needs to ensure that this ethos is explicitly communicated and shared.

You have a significant leadership role in the school, and you need to be able to make decisions and implement strategies to raise standards. It is vital that you do this within a known framework of aims and direction shared throughout the organisation. If this doesn't happen, then the situation which you describe will be replicated again and again.

Distributed leadership can only work when everyone is moving towards the same goal, sharing aims and beliefs and behaving with integrity.

Approach the head warmly and assertively; he should respond with empathy.

It could just be that your expression of concern might trigger a whole school review of strategic intent which may be overdue.

Patricia Denison is head of a village primary, near Woking, Surrey. She has been in education for 25 years, 14 in headship, and is a facilitator with the National College for School Leadership's new visions programme for heads. Do you have a leadership question? Email

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