Heads and shudders

21st October 2005 at 01:00
I was in the midst of headteachers the other day, sounding off and generally doing the old Jesus-in-the Temple routine. But then one of them asked the killer question. "If you were a head, what would be your priorities, and what sort of school would you want to build?".

Boom! Crash! Down comes the whole edifice of a journalist's fragile pretence. I had to answer honestly. I could never be a head. Never, never, never. Even bottled out of being a teacher, though I could probably have managed that, just. But a head? Impossible.

I hate running things. Loathe managing. I'm a barracker: I don't lead the charge I just catcall from the sidelines. I definitely know a good headteacher when I see one but when I look in the mirror, I don't.J So they had me bang to rights. Collapse of stout party. A faint but happy smile was discernible on the faces of the battle-scarred heads. They always knew they were marked out by Fate for great things, they always knew their lot was hard; now here was more proof in the form of a skulking journo who could no longer meet their eyes. When my children were small I once had a nightmare that I was in charge of a huge school, and I stood on the platform and spoke to them , but no sound came out and they all just wandered off . It is possible, I suppose, that some real heads have had the same dream ...

And, no doubt, so have many otherwise bright and promising teachers. We are in the middle of a national shortage of heads. Nearly a third of primary schools and a fifth of secondaries are currently, as it were, decapitated.

Some are having to share. Neither pay rises nor natural ambition can tempt enough teachers to aim for the top.

The Secondary Heads Association explains that this is partly demographic: there are a lot of tired teachers in their fifties and a lot of new bugs in their twenties, but not quite enough in the vigorous thirties and forties, with 10 or 15 years of experience and enough energy left to work long hours and stand up to inspectors from Hell, budget crises and loony parents.

Partly it is also, they say, a sense of precariousness: governors have got a bit trigger-happy of late, and it is never agreeable to face the prospect of being turned out like a plate-smashing Victorian tweeny just because you failed your Ofsted again. But perhaps it is the sheer prospect of leadership that horrifies, as in my case: even deputies are in short supply.

There are some young teachers - I met a most impressive one - who on entering the profession are willing to admit ambition, roll up their sleeves and sign on to Fast-track programmes, despite funny looks from staffroom colleagues. But there are not enough.

Which makes the profession, if you think about it, almost unique. Most occupations are full of people who think they ought to be promoted, scheme to be promoted, long for higher pay and more kudos and, as the old military saying goes, regularly carry a field-marshal's baton in their knapsack.

But not teaching. A lot of teachers, we must conclude, like to climb up the pay scale until they are comfy, run a department perhaps, but avoid ever running a whole school. Mr Chips never would have become headmaster, you know, not in real life. He'd have stuck to the classroom . And he has his followers: some are simply devoted to the buzz of teaching children, others appalled at the prospect of going to dull conferences, schmoozing difficult governors, being lampooned in the press for exclusion or uniform decisions, and being the last court of appeal for nightmare parents. "Not worth it for the money" they say happily, making for the favourite staffroom chair.

"Now, are there any of those Petit-Beurres left?"

And do you know, I salute them. I can see the problem, and wish the fast-trackers all the luck in the world, for a good Head is above rubies.

Yet I think this general reluctance to take the job on tells us something rather precious about the vocation of schoolteaching.

It suggests that it will never be considered as a way of growing affluent and important, giving people orders and getting your own way. It suggests that classrooms, for all the bile and bluster and the rise of the dread Unteachables, are still places where literate sensible adults secretly love to work, and which they dread to leave behind.

I like that thought. It also explains all those Heads who keep creeping back into the classroom on the pretext of covering for colleagues or experimenting with new kinds of PHSE. It's a drug, you know.

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