The head is not a lonely hunter

6th October 1995 at 01:00
The Headmasters' Conference meets in Dublin next week. Hugh Wright, its chairman, outlines the message he will deliver. The key to filling the role of head successfully is partnership. This is why I have made it the theme of the annual conference of the Headmasters' Conference next week in Dublin. Heads need partners. They need to associate with each other to keep abreast of best practice, across the boundaries of region and type of school, and to join together to make their views known to the Government. They need to support each other. They also need to be in partnership with parents, with universities and with employers.

Introducing a concert in his church, a vicar said of a piece named "Romance in A Flat" that he did not wish to condone cohabitation. I feel a little the same about writing on "Being a Head in the 1990s". It seems to encapsulate the problem. The vogue is for results secured by accountability, publication and inspection. We all have to be ahead - with the corollary, it must be presumed, that the devil takes the hindmost. Mephistopheles has never been known to split hairs about degrees of guilt.

The main elements of the job have always been the same. Heads appoint staff, recruit pupils, supervise the curriculum, oversee the personal welfare of their staff and pupils and establish the priorities in their school's use of its resources. A head is therefore under a great deal of pressure, but is never bored. He or she can have no sense of fixed hours and is used to dealing with the insoluble or just the intractable. It is the most rewarding, demanding, sometimes frustrating, but always interesting, job I can imagine.

Because the job is important the head must be accountable. As an employee this has always been so, but now the accountability is more public. The present degree of public accountability feels excessive, but is I imagine here to stay. This is in tune with the 1990s and can be highly beneficial. But was it necessary for the simplicities of the football league to be foisted onto schools that are not playing a game, with a simple scoring system? The schools and the Government publish their results. These are turned by others into league tables. It is not easy to reduce a school's achievements to a simple scoring system or to make useful comparisons. We are partners with parents in the process of passing on to the next generation what previous generations have found to be of value, while also preparing them for the future. What constitutes success? The importance of the individual can be so easily lost in a mass of statistics.

That noble old Roman Cicero, when attacking an obviously guilty governor of Sicily - so what's new? - cried out: "o tempora, o mores." It is unwise to assume that things at the bottom are worse, or even very different from what they have been before. As I write I am under the somewhat arrogant and quizzical gaze of James Prince Lee, Chief Master of King Edward's School in the 1830s. His portrait hangs in my study. He came as head fresh from Cambridge University with a formidable reputation as a teacher of the classics. His school was in wonderful new premises, built by Sir Charles Barry and Augustus Pugin shortly before they accepted their next commission on the bank of the Thames by Westminster Bridge. His predecessor had instilled more discipline into the school after a boy was reputedly expelled for stabbing a fellow pupil in the groin during assembly.

It was James Prince Lee's task to establish the school's academic reputation. Before his time many of the school's best scholars left at 15 to complete their school days at Shrewsbury School. He rose to this challenge magnificently - one of his early sixth form groups contained that trio of luminaries of the nineteenth century Church of England, Benson, Lightfoot and Westcott. Follow that! An Archbishop of Canterbury and two professors of theology of great distinction. Small wonder when Prince Lee retired to become the first Bishop of Manchester some reported signs of strain long familiar to those who observe the corridors of power - the bottle and being rather hard on one's family.

But even though human nature remains the same the suspicion lurks that the times they are a-changing. Canon Waterfield, headmaster of Cheltenham College early in this century, handled all his correspondence before breakfast, writing in longhand in a small summerhouse in his garden. This was to free him for the real business of the day, teaching. Few heads now give teaching a priority. You can see why.

Times, as I say, have always changed, but sometimes they change faster than others. At those times we all need friends and advisers to help us make the best use of scarce resources and to find the way through complex problems while at the same time acting not merely as administrators, but as leaders. At different times heads have been seen as gurus, dictators, scholars. Now the favoured label seems to be chief executive. The analogies are with industry. The pluses of this are the head's accountability to his governors and the parents, with an accent on efficiency and clear structures of management for the benefit of all. The minuses are the equation of schools with businesses (they are and they are not, they are schools), the assumption that the solution to any problem is to sack the head, or for the head to sack someone else and the general feeling that there is a commodity involved. What is it supposed to be. Exam results?

All this despite the fact that the people everyone remembers as important when they look back on their school days were the characters, the ones who cared, those who had the capacity to inspire, even the eccentrics whose sometimes extraordinary and often amusing foibles eased the passage, as it were, from the cradle to the executive desk.

There is also the role of the head as a community figure. I am thinking particularly now of heads of independent schools. These schools are part of the national system of education. We wish our schools to be as accessible as possible to as many people who choose them as possible. That means helping financially some of our parents who often make great sacrifices. It means partnership at local level, just as much as it means competition, if all are to get the most out of the schools available in a community. Most independent schools are older than their local education authority and are an important part of the local provision. But inside or outside the state system all heads have the same responsibilities in one guise or another. We fulfil them best in partnership. It may seem, and it sometimes is, a lonely job, but being ahead is not the same as being a head. The race is not against each other. We share our responsibilities as partners or we suffer. If we suffer so does the community we serve.

Hugh Wright is head of King Edward's School, Birmingham, and this year's chairman of the Headmasters' Conference.

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