Day jobs with a night shift

28th October 1994 at 00:00
Readings in Primary School Development, Edited by Geoff Southworth, Falmer Press #163;13.95, 0 7507 0356 3. Paul Noble on giving primary school management a human face.

Headteachers and deputy-headteachers in particular will find in these "readings" cause for reflection some comfort and a few forceful observations that may jolt them sideways out of their executive chairs. Management is the theme and the writers are people with a research interest in primary education, mainly based at the University of Cambridge Institute of Education.

Although the language of business with its inert jargon (TQM - Total Quality Management - and all that) does taint the text occasionally with its clinical inappropriateness, most of the writers keep in touch with the human face of schools, largely because the essays arise out of school-based research involving classroom observation. Geoff Southworth himself points out that one of the major characteristics of an effective school is good leadership rather than sound management, nevertheless, how schools are managed does matter. Even describing the process helps.

Apparently a headteacher can work on two levels: a high level of abstraction and a mundane level of system maintenance, from searching for a lost trombone perhaps, to agonising over school budget share calculations. Such insights abound in this book which covers: establishing a school climate of collaboration; job rotation; learning lessons from national curriculum assessment; the value of OFSTED in improving schools; and managing change through Inset. The titles are much more boring than the essays, which rarely let your attention wander. You may find the story of Carol and Barry - "Becoming Someone Other: how an Inset course contributed to a deputy head's professional development" - less of a yawn than I did, but I'm not taking bets. Such is the changing culture of education that research subjects are no longer referred to as teacher A and teacher B, but as Carol and Barry or Kathleen and Alan.

In "Trading Places", Kathleen and Alan swap jobs and titles to enable the head to become a class teacher for a year. (Guess who was the real head.) Some governors and parents thought this experiment was playing fast and loose with their children's education, but it was certainly an eye-opener to all those involved. Headships turned out to be "a day job with a night shift". Who was paid the head's salary was not revealed.

Collaborative styles of leadership predominate in primary schools these days, even so charismatic heads flourish still. Observations here should prevent proponents of either style from becoming too complacent. Take note that Denis Hayes ("A Primary Headteacher in Search of a Collaborative Climate") discovers that teachers are not always interested in collaboration. After all, the demands of decision making are time-consuming and, not surprisingly, teachers are inclined to put the needs of their children and their class first. Teachers valued decisiveness. Southworth, in his analysis of leadership styles, points out the importance of a head having a clear personal philosophy and the ability to be both tough and tender on demand. But the warning for visionary heads is that in their magnetic certainty, they can treat teachers as mere ciphers for their wishes.

School improvement is "steady work" says Weindling in his overview of research on school effectiveness, and cannot be achieved by simply bolting on another initiative. Government ministers please note. Finally there are some perceptive criticisms of the OFSTED handbook and the glorious heresy of disputing that inspection does lead to improvement. Apparently the verdict is "not yet proven".

My favourite contribution is Jim Campbell's, Professor of Education at Warwick, who, in a worthy polemic on the problems associated with the introduction of the national curriculum, lays bare a story of mismanagement on high that handed on impossible problems of management to teachers. He inveighs against the poverty of the language used (delivery, evidence, audit) which he condemns as mechanistic as well as theft from the world of accountancy and law.

Campbell demonstrates that the "back to basics" movement has put into operation policy guidelines which actually reduce the amount of time that primary schools have traditionally spent on the "basics". He discusses the problems posed by planning that denies the existence of "evaporated time", time spent on non-cognitive tasks such as lining-up and transferring from one room to another. He also suggests that more use should be made of class texts.

Neither educational political correctness nor images of Victorian classrooms, should be allowed to cloud present judgments when, in fact, good quality class texts would be the quickest way of helping class teachers cope with both the cognitive demands of the curriculum and the time demands of preparing materials, he argues. Yet more heresy?

Paul Noble is headteacher of Blundson St Andrews Primary School, Swindon.

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