Headship, hemlock and arsenic

7th March 2003 at 00:00
YESTERDAY was the first part of what the authority has chosen to call my career evaluation. The process looks impressive on paper, and no doubt gets the directorate off the hook when the inevitable inspector calls, but the reality leaves a lot to be desired.

It never ceases to amaze me how people can have a realistic appreciation of what it means to be a primary head in these troubled times, when their own career experience has been so sheltered. My appraiser was a charming, well-manicured, powerfully dressed, jargon junkie, whose closest encounter with headship took place several years ago on an exchange visit to Germany.

In keeping with the trend beloved by the council's director of personnel - sorry, human resources - a questionnaire had been issued to my staff. This procedure seems akin to asking the slaves what they thought of Pharaoh and, predictably, several sought vengeance, retribution and retaliation.

To some, I was too decisive; to others, I was not decisive enough. I apparently didn't delegate enough, but some complained that there was an excess of delegation. I was coming across as a blend of Mother Teresa and Lucrezia Borgia, and it hurt.

My own review of my performance was, I thought, fair. I admitted the harvest festival could have been better, and I owned up to the neglect of the problems in the early stages, namely three of the old guard - known affectionately as Mary Greeting, Mary Bleating and Mary Curmudgeon - who were close to winding down.

Anyway, cometh the day and cometh the quality development officer. "Just call me Q!" she laughed as she straightened the Harvey Nics skirt to avoid any creases. Isn't it funny that the only other Q I had heard of was someone who was a loner, lived in a darkened basement and dreamt up all sorts of impractical ideas?

My concentration began to drift after the first two hours of the interview, or should I say monologue. I began to focus on the gold-embossed initials on the genuine leather document case - E.R.S. I stifled a giggle. I failed, rapidly turning it into a contrived cough. Her view of my headship was based on no more than two fleeting visits, various anecdotes, some spurious questionnaire returns and her "feeling". The interview was deteriorating into a kind of frosty stand-off, both of us developing a mutual resentment and agreeing to differ on a wide range of issues.

The ice was broken when Katie, the classroom assistant, came in with the tea and biscuits. Not Earl Grey or Darjeeling, but the Co-op's finest. The biscuits were left over from the Christmas party, but had maintained a remarkable freshness. Elizabeth Rose declined the tea, preferring instead the herbal infusion she carried in her handbag. Hemlock and Arsenic perhaps?

Our opinions of my headship were so far apart that there was little room for compromise. I was doing my best in a school they all agreed was "difficult", and my predecessor had failed to reach the same dizzy heights in educational terms as he had in Rotary, rugby and retail. I had enjoyed the Scottish Qualification for Headship sessions, but this was for real. I carried the can. When will HMI come up with a How Good Is Our Headteacher Support? format.

We agreed to return to the "issues" again. I showed Elizabeth Rose to the door, and we passed the jannie's room. He was halfway through the racing section, slurping his tea and crunching into his second Kit-Kat, when he looked up over his glasses.

His gaze alighted on the elegant departing visitor. He had a quizzical look on his face. "Well, b***** me," he splurted. Her face was one of utter horror, disdain and repugnant disgust. "Excuse me?" she snorted down her patrician nose. I noticed a reddening of the neck, and a look of terror in the eyes.

As she sped towards the exit, mumbling something about being late for a meeting with the director, Jannie Jim shouted out: "It's Betty, isn't it? Betty Soutar? I wiz in your class at the tec - remember me?"

A crimson tide swept past the door. She was livid. I swear I heard teeth grinding.

As her BMW roared out of the school yard, I invited Jim into my room for a wee chat. "Now Jim, tell me more . . ."

Bridget McElroy

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