Do we want leaders or performing seals?

11th March 2005 at 00:00
At a time when teachers are hardly rushing to take up the challenge of headship, why are governors and LEAs making the process of becoming a head even more difficult?

In the old days, appointment followed an interview with the great and the good of the educational world. The LEA inspector would quiz you on the latest Education Act, the councillor would ask about money, and the chairman about the school or locality. There would always be one governor to ask a maverick question; I was once asked by a little old lady how I would tackle the litter problem in the village. It was not unusual to have upwards of 40 applicants for a popular school. Nowadays, in our area, anything over half a dozen is considered good.

One of my friends has just been appointed head of a school in a neighbouring county after an exhausting process. Luckily, she is a marathon runner, renowned for her stamina. Her ordeal began with a tour of the school with the acting head. Mindful that the acting head would be quizzed by the chairperson, she was very careful to ask intelligent questions and be diplomatic about the glaring inadequacies of the school.

When the first day of the appointment process dawned, she was invited to tell a story to the school council. Tricky. Avoiding the pitch for lovable eccentric by excluding Dr Seuss, she played safe with a cliffhanger excerpt from Harry Potter, delivering it with enough dramatisation to put Sir John Gielgud to shame. Her next ordeal was a presentation to the staff on staffing issues. The juggling act of apparently being sympathetic to worklife balance while keeping the meagre budget in check was worthy of Alastair Campbell.

After the first day, the two surviving candidates were sent away to prepare a presentation for the governors. Hers was on a theme near to their hearts:

"How to combat falling rolls." As one governor was overheard to say: "We might as well get our money's worth. Even if we don't appoint, we'll pick up a few useful ideas." The presentation went well, but the next hurdle was the one my friend dreads: the discussion with the other candidate, rightly called "the goldfish bowl".

The finance exercise with the bursar passed in a haze, the only snag being that the budget was not in deficit, making the whole process unrealistic.

The in-tray exercise was standard daily fare, although she was surprised by the intimate nature of one of the hypothetical parents' problems.

By the time of the interviews my friend was so frazzled that the ordeal may have achieved its objective, and stripped her raw. What the governors saw, was what they got.

She was at least spared the Ofsted exercise of grading a video lesson. She did not have to sit psychometric tests, since the governors had been disappointed with the previous head who had been brilliant at such tests.

Nor did they want to observe her teaching a lesson, or mingling with parents at the gate, all of which have been endured by other colleagues.

There must be a better way of encouraging the next generation of headteachers. How about personnel officers acting as headhunters, nurturing a cadre of likely hopefuls until their predecessors can hand over in an orderly fashion? Then we could have an objective professional measure of how potential heads are actually doing the job, instead of seeing exhausted show ponies perform in situations unrelated to the realities of the job.

Anything would be better than the present system of sudden death and headship by attrition.

Bob Aston

Bob Aston is head of a junior school in Kent

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