Handsworth revolution

13th December 1996 at 00:00
David Winkley, 55, has been a head teacher for 21 years. He is currently head at Grove Primary School in Handsworth, Birmingham. The school has 700 pupils and 33 teachers.

Did you always want to be a head?

No. When I was at Cambridge I wrote short stories for Granta and was involved in Footlights.

I thought I might become a journalist but went to work as a researcher with Richard Hoggart and Stuart Hall at the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies. After two years I did some supply teaching - you didn't need a PGCE in those days - mainly in secondary schools, which I decided were not for me. I then moved into primary and liked it enormously. I get on well with young children and find them hugely intellectually challenging and exciting.

Eventually I got a permanent job and was promoted very quickly - there was a shortage of people in the Sixties. I became deputy at Perry Common school in a tough area of Birmingham. There was a wonderful head, Llion Rees, and a tremendous staff. If you do your learning in schools with zip and enthusiasm you take that culture on and begin to see why the job is so exciting. I always feel sorry for new teachers who end up in dull schools.

While I was at Perry Common I got interested in children with learning difficulties. I then went to Oxford to do a DPhil. I could have stayed on there but my wife and I decided it was a bit too cosy so I went back to supply teaching. Grove was a troubled school in those days and I was asked if I'd apply for the job and stay two years. That was some time ago.

How would you describe your style of headship?

I have very strong views about management and get excited about the literature on contemporary business management. I read a lot, about five books a week. I feel strongly about the importance of participative management and creating a culture that involves all staff and children which empowers them to grow personally. Everyone is a manager.

I'm obsessively committed to trying to create positive attitudes. I think it is very important as a head to create a space for other people to talk about what's going on.

People who don't know me very well may think I'm slightly eccentric - those who do know me realise I'm quite tough and have a strong sense of urgency. I don't think you can stand still. If you do nothing you go downwards; you have to move forward. People probably see me as impassioned. I'm good at coming up with creative ideas and getting them to work through and with others.

What do you gain fromyour governors?

The governors took a central role in the amalgamation which happened about two years ago. We have termly "think tank" meetings between 5pm and 9pm, where we have a meal and talk about ideas and issues. The governors make my life a lot easier because we all swim in the same direction.

What do you gain from your LEA?

Since Tim Brighouse arrived, the morale of teachers has been transformed. We are now supported by a positive and creative LEA. For example, the national Primary Centre's Children's University - thousands of children want to go to it. One of the most important things is to shift the consciousness of the importance of young children and put them at the top of the national agenda.

What are the most important aspects of a head's job?

The ability to create an exciting environment for all participants - and to ensure that teachers and children feel safe and are secure enough to grow emotionally so that they can take risks.

Who or what most influenced you in your approach?

Mainly trial and error and a few writers. John Kao's recent book, Jamming, encapsulates a lot of what I think. Through the National Primary Trust and the Stevenson Commission I have the opportunity to talk to a lot of senior business people and find we have a lot in common.

What do you enjoy about your job?

Working with creative people. The children here are a delight and the staff have a genuine interest in education.

What don't you enjoy?

We are suffering from chronic centralisation of the intellectual agenda. There's a sense in which we're under siege from people who don't teach and who treat teachers with subliminal contempt. I worry about the power of men in these centralist positions - most of them are men and most people in teaching are women.

Teachers have been disenfranchised from the debate. They are like the First World War troops in the trenches. I'm not complacent about schools; we've hardly tapped into what children can do. But this is not the way to encourage young people into the profession.

What are the most difficult things you do?

Keeping going. The pure remorselessness of the job can be demanding and worrying.

What was different from what you expected?

The level of stress. It's a very tough job.

What would you do differently next time round?

Loads of things. Particularly space things out better, be a bit less urgent and obsessional and not allow myself to get so over-tired.

What keeps you sane?

Having an alternative life. My wife is a consultant psychiatrist in a children's hospital and brings in a perspective from another direction. Plus reading, writing and cooking.

Who are your heroes?

I admire teachers a great deal and people who are unknown but keep going and somehow succeed in carving out a life that is moral, sensitive and worthwhile.

If you were Secretary of State for EducationI I'd have a radical set of policies: massive decentralisation; reduction of the costs of the Teacher Training Authority, the SchoolCurriculum Assessment Authority, the Office for Standards in Education and the Department for Education and Employment; more structured networks to allow teachers to talk to each other. We need to value teachers much more and engage them in debate.

How would you like to be remembered?

As someone seriously committed to the importance of primary education, who helped move the national consciousness into the recognition that young children have to be at the top of the agenda.

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