Delivering on the demanding headship post

21st January 2011 at 00:00

"Our wee school's the best wee school, the best wee school in Scotland; the only thing that's wrang wi it is the baldy headed master". Headteachers taking flak is nothing new. In the early 1960s, I chanted this with my primary peers as we lined up waiting to be marched into class. There have been times in subsequent years, in conversations with colleagues, that it has seemed that many have continued to endorse this sentiment.

This should not surprise us. When the football team and the plc are underperforming, it is the manager and the CEO who have to endure the onslaught of the media and shareholders. By comparison, headteachers have it easy.

However, it would be a serious error to conclude that being a headteacher is not one of the most demanding of posts. The array of skills that the successful headteacher needs is formidable. It is perhaps because of the daunting nature of the role that increasingly educational books emphasise the importance of leadership.

But we need to be careful in education not to replicate the errors of business we too often slavishly follow. Many businesses believed charismatic leadership could transform their fortunes. Adam Applegarth, Northern Rock's former CEO was believed to have the Midas touch. His delusional self-belief, shared by most of those around him in the compliant culture he created, allowed him to ignore warnings, leading his business to catastrophe and contributing to the perilous state of our national finances.

Leadership matters, primarily because of the tone or the culture the leader creates. I could not contain my laughter after reading a glossy Curriculum for Excellence poster. Under the heading of "Confident Individuals", it stated: "I know I am important!" How many individuals do you know that need to be convinced of this? However, it does contain an important truth. If schools fail to create the right culture, children and teachers quickly appreciate they are unimportant, at least at school.

A head does not need to be perfect to lead a successful school, but they need to create a culture where everyone has the confidence to express their ideas and views.

Children and adults learn a huge amount, from what schools do, not necessarily by what they say. If we really want confident individuals making effective contributions, schools need to do more than put posters on the wall. Creating a school that is open, questioning and comfortable with disagreement takes talent and time - but the pay-off is enormous.

Unfortunately, too often we conclude that open, questioning schools are impractical; mere idealistic twaddle. Often, those who are reticent about creating a more open culture in schools, whether teachers or members of management, are apprehensive for a good reason. They are afraid of losing control, the fear that has terrified those in power throughout the centuries. It is the inability or unwillingness to accept that criticism, debate and dissent are essential if we want to make significant progress. Suppression, although always easier, manifests itself in a moribund school.

Let us be frank: it is easy to teach classes, and manage faculties and entire schools, paying no more than lip service to creating confident individuals and effective contributors. Easier it may be, but the long- term outcome will be children and adults disaffected, talents grossly underdeveloped and a third-rate education.

Curriculum for Excellence, with all its faults, is our opportunity to create a more open and productive culture, which headteachers have a pivotal role in creating. They are in the unique position to establish the school's ethos, by demonstrating their personal commitment to a courteous, candid dialogue. Easy to state; difficult to achieve.

David Halliday is a teacher in Eyemouth High.

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