Heads you lose

27th June 1997 at 01:00
Colin Butler says it's about time that a stepping stone to headship is regarded as a proper job

A shortage of headteachers and deputies may create a crisis of sorts (TES, June 6, page 10), but the shortage that really matters is that of heads of department. It hasn't hit the headlines yet but it should cause alarm since, quite simply, heads of department are the ones who deliver the goods.

Schools are multi-functional places, but if their primary function is to teach subjects, then heads of department must necessarily count as crucial. It is they who construct syllabuses, know more than anyone about the teaching of their subject, fill in forms and carry the can as well as the banner. And it is they who collectively make the league tables work.

In any other walk of life, their combination of hands-on involvement and strategic planning would be a star attraction. So what's gone wrong in schools?

First, it is clear that the old model of senior management and middle management is outdated so far as heads of department are concerned: national curriculum subject responsibilities are too large and too complicated for them to serve any longer. When the big decisions are taken, heads of department should be there too. But in too many schools, hierarchy still takes precedence, and heads of department are underrated.

The consequences in terms of pay and influence are obvious. But they also reinforce the pernicious belief that head of department is merely a stepping stone to a "real" job at the top: HOD at 30, head at 40 is still the conventional wisdom. Instead of being seen as an end in itself, HOD gets classed as a rite of passage. And if success means moving up, then those who remain must be deemed unsuccessful. Scarcely worth a life's work, is it?

Nor is that all. Rapid change has characterised education over the past decade, and the end is nowhere in sight. Syllabuses, too, have become so complicated that they consume entire forests, and there is scarcely a year in a child's education that is not dominated by one key stage or another. All of this energy-consuming deluge has to be thought through, planned and implemented.There is no part of the year that is exempt from high-priority administration.

So where is the time for all this? Well, it isn't there. Not a single reform has been costed in terms of man hours, and it's HODs who, time and time again, have made up the difference.

Finally, there is the character of the job itself. It used to be creative. You knew what was expected and you drew up your syllabuses accordingly. It was regarded as bad practice to teach to exams, and rightly so. Education was about exploration as well as exam preparation, and a good balance it was, too. That's all gone now and the predictable result is that, cramped for time, straight-jacketed by the national curriculum and second-guessed by the Office for Standards in Education, heads of department have been downgraded from constructive innovators to the educational equivalent of prison trusties. Terrific!

It's the opposite iIn industry - always brandished as an example to us until it comes to pay: personal input is maximised, motivation increases and efficiency goes up accordingly. In teaching, however, you take the brightest you can get and shove great wads of directives down their throats.

Despite his Woodhead blunder, David Blunkett comes across as a sensible man, but he doesn't seem to be addressing the number one issue - how to make teaching attractive - in the right way, if at all. A national consultation is the answer so that those who actually teach can spell out what needs correcting. In the consultation document, right at the front, there should be a special section marked "heads of department". I seldom make prophecies, but I'll make this one: when head of department in a school is routinely seen as a coveted number by career-minded students, we shall have an education system worth the name. But not before.

Dr Colin Butler is head of English at Borden Grammar School, Sittingbourne, Kent

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