The greatest heads I know are anything but uniform

7th October 2011 at 01:00
Our tick-box culture may encourage homogeneity, but good teachers always fight it

It's seldom that Edinburgh's Warriston Crematorium can't hold the congregation. The recent cremation of Ronnie Summers, retired Sighthill Primary headteacher, saw dozens of mourners pack the vestibule and another 60 shelter beneath brollies outside.

The numbers themselves were a tribute to a loved, admired man. As well as family and teachers, there were friends from golf, bowling, church and neighbourhood and a host of former pupils.

Ronnie had been a gigantic character. He had insisted for over 20 years to pupils who quizzed his age that he was 38. He demanded that pupils accept that Sighthill was the best school in the world. Any guest in the school attending an assembly would be asked to judge the straightest back and the pupils would sit ramrod erect for 20 minutes, wanting whatever was the nominal prize but, even more, wanting their head's praise and attention.

Humorous, articulate, warm and engaging, Ronnie Summers inspired kids and colleagues alike.

His funeral reminded me of another headteacher colleague's recent comment. "The tick-box mentality is encouraging homogeneity. Soon there'll be none of the characters left in teaching." Another recently-retired friend suggested that local authorities would soon tighten up their appointments procedures, so that "loose cannons" can't get through the system again.

I know what they meant. I have witnessed new heads dressed down in front of colleagues for not toeing the department line and experienced heads hauled over the coals for offences reported on the basis of second-hand gossip. I've also seen the accelerated rise of the power-dressing diplomats who meticulously avoid every debate where principles are at stake.

It's the triumph of the new managerialism in local government. Once, all senior education officials had hands-on experience of delivering education. They had a commitment to learning as the stuff of their trade. Today, qualifications and experience in finance, HR or management are common. There is no feel for the things that make schools work. The new managers seek to appoint their own mirror images.

My one source of optimism is that the new managerialists cannot win. A few of the power-dressers will rise, but the people who make schools work have a much deeper commitment, to the values of learning and to warm human relationships. Their job is not to sit back and "dae as they're telt", but to see their priority as defending the interests of their students, the communities their schools serve and their staff. They will require courage and support to do that and to maintain the values of predecessors such as Ronnie.

Alex Wood, former headteacher, now works at the Scottish Centre for Studies in School Administration.

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