Death of the amateur;Platform;Opinion;News amp; Opinion

5th November 1999 at 00:00
In 30 years as a teacher and head Bernard Barker received very limited training. Here he celebrates the end of the gifted enthusiast.

AFTER eight months hard graft, I have achieved accreditation as a trainer with the Leadership Programme for Serving Heads. The Hay consultants responsible for the programme have coached and guided me with formidable patience.

"Not now Bernard" has been their catchphrase as they have counselled me to listen, observe and respond to learners' needs. As a compulsive communicator, I have struggled to master the paradox of effective facilitation - "the less, the more". Constant practice and feedback have developed me as a trainer, while the programme materials have transformed my understanding of school leadership.

Nearly 30 years ago, when I began, the approach was rather different. There was no requirement to study education, practise teaching or learn about children and schools. Apart from my degree, I entered the profession with no qualifications or training. During the self-propelled quarter century that followed, no one observed or commented on my work. I did not complain, because the culture of professional autonomy was attractive. I considered myself a gifted amateur, obviously superior to the unfortunate individuals who had attended training colleges. Rapid promotion confirmed my expectations.

When, aged 32, I became deputy head responsible for pastoral care, my lack of knowledge began to trouble me. Was it really the case that a three-year history degree could provide all the expertise required for an entire career in education? How should I prepare myself for the headship of a large comprehensive?

At that time, however, Mrs Thatcher was embarking on monetarism and the public sector was starved of funds. Pay was squeezed and in-service training was reduced to the odd half-day of this and that. Within 18 months, I plunged into headship with energy, enthusiasm and ignorance. I knew almost no-thing about leadership and management. Steeped in the ethos of the public sector, my mind was closed to models derived from business and industry.

Innocence is sometimes an advantage, especially if you have the ability to learn from your blunders, so my early years as a head were successful. Undaunted by the scale of the school's problems, I tackled the chip vans which served lunch to hundreds of children in the road and restructured the curriculum to ensure equal opportunities.

But as the emergency phase faded from people's minds, I began to find the job much more difficult. How do you motivate disaffected and disillusioned staff and children? How do you keep achievement centre stage?

Apart from occasional pastoral visits from local inspectors or HMI, my first 15 years as a head were unchallenged, even unquestioned. As I developed from whizz-kid to sage, I was treated with increasing respect and deference. I was seconded as an inspector; I travelled the country as an acknowledged expert; I was invited to contribute to learned journals.

When local management of schools and the national curriculum appeared, we expected training - but there was none. Instead, like other heads with early experience of delegated budgets, I began leading workshops on financial management in other authorities. I remained a gifted amateur, learning on the job and improvising my own answers to ever more complex demands. Governments were remorselessly critical but we didn't understand what they wanted or how to achieve it. Nobody thought about coaching.

I date the modern age from May 22, 1995. Our first Office for Standards in Education team examined the marvellous old nag to whom we had devoted the best years of our lives and was unimpressed. The registered inspector reported: "The principal exudes ideas which are frequently imaginative and innovatory but are not always fully understood or implemented by his colleagues."

Distressed and unhappy, I interpreted this visit as an invasion of my domain. Fortunately, I understood the essential point. My career was over, unless I learned to become a technician of improvement. OFSTED had brought the amateurish world of professional autonomy to an abrupt, ruthless end.

Self-motivated and self-directed for so long, I found the process of adaptation very difficult. After two years, I tried to escape. I retired early and began to teach the history post-graduate certificate in education at Leicester University. Almost at once, HMI arrived for one of their regular sweeps through teacher-training. The inspector observed and coached me for a whole day. To my complete surprise, I found the visit exceptionally helpful. A follow-up inspection this year recognised the progress we have made.

Shortly after my retirement, I agreed to help a school in special measures. HMI monitored the place four times during my six terms in charge. It felt like intensive coaching in the new science. After years without direction or evaluation, I enjoyed the short-term goals and rapid feedback. We knew what had to be done and were told when we succeeded.

It is a strange, sad irony that all this high-quality, high-cost coaching has been reserved for my retirement. Until very recently, the profession was expected to invent its own objectives and to train and motivate itself without time, money or guidance. Despite all the noise about standards, state education came cheap and no one was prepared to invest in the expert leadership and training necessary for success. How many tired or traumatised teachers have left the profession for want of the guidance now lavished on me?

My Leadership Programme training has given me a unique opportunity to reconsider all my most cherished assumptions. I've discovered I've more to learn than I thought. We should be pleased and relieved that the Government is serious about improving schools and determined that in future every teacher is properly prepared for the challenge of working with young people.

Bernard Barker, School of Education at the University of Leicester

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