Hard slog to ultimate low

12th May 1995 at 01:00
Rosemary Litawski juggled parenting, study and work to become a head, but is driven to despair by this year's round of redundancies. The ultimate job, the pinnacle of one's career," was how I once heard headship described by an eager, aspiring young man being interviewed for a head-of-faculty post, after he was asked the perennial interview question about his goals for the future.

At the time, I was more enlightened about the clear plans of ambitious, confident male teachers, as compared to my own stereotypical female view of my career - namely, one of chance and luck, of simply being in the right place at the right time. I have no doubt that the young man concerned went on to achieve his ultimate goal, but only now do I reflect on his description of headship.

Having made it to that "ultimate job", I am now more perceptive about the luck element of my career. Five years' part-time study for an Open University degree did not just happen. Vivid memories still remain of huddling in a ladies' toilet at Leicester University between an afternoon lecture on management and an evening session on counselling and pastoral care, using a breast pump to express milk into a bottle for my baby daughter.

This triggers another bizarre picture of writing an essay on anorexia nervosa at the ante-natal clinic (I took an MEd while on maternity leave). There was more part-time study for an MA and a PhD, and endless other courses. All, I have found myself asking this term, for what?

Juggling the demands of after-school commitments and childminders, ever watchful never to be criticised for not giving 100 per cent-plus to the job because you are a woman, keeping cool when asked a blatantly sexist question at interview yet again. After all that, and 25 years' teaching in between, I have reached the exalted position of headteacher and am one of only a minority of female secondary headteachers in the country. But I have to admit that on occasions last term I questioned whether it had been worth it.

Headship has tremendous highs, tremendous rewards, but last term, for many heads besides myself, there were indescribable lows. It is a lonely job, which maybe explains my current need to reflect on last term; the need to make public a very personal experience.

At least while I'm doing that I've stopped thinking about school: about league tables, the impending Office for Standards in Education inspection, my competitive neighbouring school (and, of course, its glowing OFSTED report), the graffiti in the toilets.

But what about the job itself? Why the ambivalent feelings about the pinnacle of my teaching career? Is it the job, or is it simply 1995, the year the local authority did not fund the 2.7 per cent teachers' pay rise? Or is it because this is the second year that the authority has not funded the pay rise? Or the year the Government did not fund authorities to fund the schools to fund the pay rise?

Whatever the cause - and I suspect it is more complex than this year's pay rise, local management or even the competitive market economy philosophy of education - the result has been the same for hundreds of headteachers. 1995 has heralded teacher redundancies and a winter term of discontent.

Realising one is not alone in this saga is intellectually comforting, but unfortunately means little on the day when one has to face a colleague and tell them there will be no job for them in September. The fact that this is the decision of the governors' panel, and not yours, means even less to that unfortunate teacher than it does to me. Objectively, coldly justifying the inevitable budget figures to an NUT official, who argues passionately for the personal circumstances of your colleague, does little to ease the conscience of someone who has always considered herself a socialist, or at the very least someone who cares.

How would my ardent trade unionist father, who believed so much in education, regard his daughter if he was alive to see her in 1995? My PhD thesis, which took five years of research, concluded that the role of the deputy head is crucial to the management of schools, to the development of management teams and to consultative, democratic organisations. Yet in 1995 I find myself making my deputy head redundant. In September there will be no deputy head at Mereway, in a school which only four years ago had three deputy heads and 100 fewer pupils.

Management is about difficult decisions, but I cannot envisage anything more distasteful than depriving someone of their career, simply because of a numerical financial exercise. Redundancies are unpleasant, hurtful, personal, divisive, damaging, secretive and conspiratorial.

I have taken refuge in the process, in the bureaucracy, attempting to adopt Weber's depersonalisationefficiency model, and have become immersed in the mountains of paperwork.

Headship should mean the opportunity to realise dreams, the ultimate job, the pinnacle of one's career; instead, 1995 has started with a nightmare. Headship in 1995 has witnessed me, at times, sinking to the depths of my career - but I am sure I will climb back up to that pinnacle.

* Dr Rosemary Litawski is headteacher of Mereway Upper School, Northampton, which had to make four teachers redundant last term as Northamptonshire did not fund the teachers' pay rise.

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