Head wanted: heroes need not apply

17th June 2005 at 01:00
In the first novel I completed after I gave up teaching full-time in order to write, a character called Marc Ashford becomes the headteacher of a crumbling inner-city school and, through a combination of compassionate understanding, radical views and a rejection of bureaucracy, begins to transform the place.

The book was turned down by every agent to whom I sent it, usually accompanied with a plain rejection slip. One agent, however, clearly had a sense of humour. "I'm sorry," his scribbled note read, "but we don't handle fantasy." Well, we women novelists often inject a little wish-fulfilment into our heroes. Jane Austen created Darcy, Charlotte Bront created Rochester and I, sad-sack teacher that I am, wrote about good-looking, sexy, maverick Marc, the brilliantly radical head. It goes without saying that I've never worked for a head who could be described in those terms.

I've taught in some schools where the head was moderately competent and supported by an excellent deputy, but most secondary heads for whom I've worked have been woefully inadequate, a bunch of control freaks, paper pushers, abdicators, time-servers, woolly minded bumblers and, in at least one instance, a basket case. Perhaps this dearth of good leaders wouldn't matter so much if the education system was ticking along nicely, but as everyone must know by now, it's in crisis. So where are the heroes who can lead us out of the mire?

Wherever they are, I doubt if the much touted, and now sadly mandatory, national professional qualification for headship (NPQH) will create any superheroes. A mere visit to the jargon-infested website of the august body responsible for this would be enough to repel anyone with vision and an ability to think for themselves. You can spot a recent NPQH graduate by the manner in which he clings to his bits of paper and utters the shibboleths with religious fervour. "We've now got an anti-bullying policy!" he proclaims, waving the weighty document around like a talisman, while the kids who've been beaten up weep unabated in the school toilets. "I've introduced performance management and target-setting for the staff," he gloats, regardless of the fact that his management style has prompted a raft of resignations.

I could go on, but it's too depressing. My imaginary hero rips up policy documents in front of the staff and tells them to use their common sense instead. He creates a flexible timetable and refuses to follow directives from above if he doesn't agree with them. He does other startling and unusual things, such as walking around the school and getting to know the kids. I don't have the space to describe it all, but if the agent who rejected my novel had read it to the end, where my hero is sacked by the local authority, he might have described it differently. That part, at least, wasn't fantasy, but the sure fate awaiting any head who proves to have a mind of his own.

Sue Gedge, who taught drama in London secondary schools for 20 years, is a writer and storyteller

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