Good at work, bad at people

16th May 2003 at 01:00
Answers your questions.

Three years ago, I spoke to you at a conference about our failing school.

We appointed a new head, and as chair I can only marvel at the transformation. The school is now firmly established, not just in recovery but in tip-top form. The aims were clear, the programme for achieving them precise. Good management systems have been put in place, rigorous success criteria established and faithfully monitored.

But is everybody happy? No. Our dear old head valued everyone and gave lots of praise, merited or not. Staff and children loved him, governors got on with him. The new head offends people right, left and centre. His manner is brusque, he speaks his mind regardless, he rubs staff and governors up the wrong way and is polite and minimally sociable with parents.

I can't fault the way he has turned the school round, but I have already lost a fine colleague from my team, and others talk of resigning. Staff mutter to me every time I show my face. His word is absolute law, no one else has a role, and although he gets co-operation, the muttering increases involume. What is my role?

You know you are "improving the school's performance", as required by law.

But you are not satisfied with it. You know that short-term results can be produced with a mixture of ability, drive and ruthlessness, but you also suspect that without unity of purpose, warmth and appreciation of what others contribute, it may not last.

All members of the school team feel good when their efforts get results, but in the long run they will only maintain them if they feel that they are valued and involved. Your head is an identifiable type, and after a regime of cosy mediocrity all round, some such change may be needed. The skill is in judging the moment to relax the frown and try the smile and the kind word, and you have recognised this.

Otherwise the next stage may be that the ablest staff - those who are in a position to go elsewhere as distinct from just suffering it - will move on, that the quality of governors recruited may suffer because it gets round that it's tough going, and maintaining the pace becomes hard work. Three people can talk to him - I don't know them, so can't say which should take a lead.

One is you yourself. You know that. The other is a deputy - you probably know which. The third is your attached inspectoradviser from the local education authority.

You probably need to talk privately to both these first and sound them out.

Then there have to be some frank exchanges about the need for the head to empower a number of other people who are worthy of it, entrusting aspects of the enterprise to them but with the promise of support and appreciation, now that foundations have been laid and bad habits left behind.

You must give him full credit for the transformation, but suggest that if it is to be sustained the key players must be empowered and encouraged with warmth as well as high expectations.

Remember it is a huge challenge to turn round a failing school and it takes its toll. He may well be ready to adopt softer techniques and welcome someone who is brave enough to say when. Good luck.

Questions for Joan Sallis should be sent to The TES, Admiral House, 66-68 East Smithfield, London E1W 1BX, fax 0171 782 32023205, or see where answers will also appear.

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