How to confront the beast

27th October 2000 at 01:00
At interview, you will meet a creature known as 'the head', a species which comes in many guises. John O'Donoghue offers an (almost) scientific description of their main characteristics

Headteachers have been very much in the news this school year. Four super-heads have bitten the dust - or, perhaps more accurately, rolled. The promised heads' college has been given the green light. And, more pertinently, heads were charged with organising the assessments for teachers who apply to cross the threshold.

These people have a large say in determining your career. So what can prospective teachers expect when they arrive at interview? What kind of head will be waiting for them? And what can the nervous applicant do and say to create the right impression?

I have discerned five different types of headteacher. I do not claim to be as scientific as Darwin. My taxonomy does, however, have the virtue of being based on that most popular of social science tools: the interview.

Yes, these are the kinds of head who have interviewed me - some even gave me a job. For the sake of argument, the masculine pronoun shall be applied to each exhibit, with the exception of The Duchess, of course.

The Traditionalist

An increasingly rare breed. Usually a classics graduate from Oxbridge who went up purely on merit and came down with an evangelical gleam in his eye. A formidable person, this head tends to be extremely formal and unashamed, indeedproud, of his so old-fashioned methods.

An exceptional teacher with natural authority, he is also brilliant at organising. He commands the respect of all staff, and is unafraid of breathing fire and smoke to protect junior staff when students misbehave.

He also has an eccentric streak - for instance, singing the Teletubbies' signature tune - for the school's CD.

He really wants to run a public school, and is resentful that foundation status has eroded his budget and autonomy. Not so much a boss as lord of the manor.

* Habitat the past

* Do ask about being fast-tracked

* Don't ask about free periods

The Geek

Like Bill Gates, The Geek believes that information technology will change the world. This head is 100 per cent behind his staff having laptops, networked computer suites and enough software to keep a small sunrise corporation solvent - until the next upgrade, when all the school equipment becomes obsolete.

Not necessarily a science graduate, The Geek has succeeded in getting his school technology college status, is obsessive about statistics and would sooner crunch numbers than ginger nuts. He secretly dreams of installing Star Trek-type holo-decks in every department and beaming up the school's worst offenders to the bridge.

Oh, and if all students could be tattooed with a bar code across their foreheads, then registration would simply be a matter of scanning them in. Tomorrow belongs to The Geek.

* Habitat the Alpha Quadrant

* Do flourish your palmtop

* Don't slag off Terry Pratchett

The Petty Officer

This head has come up the hard way. Like the British forces NCO, The Petty Officer is something of an old sweat. His headship has been contingent upon a lot of time-serving and good, old-fashioned sucking-up. As a consequence, he is not as dynamic as he wuld like others to think. He depends on his deputies to ensure order in the ranks, and would like to run his school according to Queen's Regulations - which govern behaviour and conditions of army service - rather than DfEE circulars, which he would sooner bin than implement (the new policy on exclusions is an example).

He may use managerial jargon, such as "it's a hardball game", "inclusion is the way forward", "education should be as open to publicprivate initiatives as any other part of society". But this camouflages a deep-seated mistrust of the officer class, who he believes knows nothing about schools. He secretly dreams of bringing back national service for the GNVQ leisure and tourism students.

* Habitat The War Room

* Do your top button up

* Don't ever volunteer

The Duchess

Rather like The Traditionalist, The Duchess strikes the modern eye as an anachronism. For The Duchess - a female head in a girls' school - believes that the values which made The Cheltenham Ladies' College first choice for Madonna and little Lourdes will serve others equally well.

The fact that The Duchess is running an institution at which more than 40 languages are spoken, nearly half get free school dinners and resources are tight does not daunt her.

She too has much humbler origins than her twinset and pearls suggest, but she instinctively realises the power of posh.

She may not be inspiring la creme de la creme, but she certainly wants everyone to feel that this is what they are. And if it sometimes takes the iron fist in the kid glove to achieve this, then so be it. For The Duchess will not tolerate inferior standards: she has not got where she is by letting her act slip. She dreams that Lourdes might even come to her school.

* Habitat Is that a furniture shop? I inherited mine

* Do curtsy

* Don't drop your aitches

The Vole

The Vole is a shy, reclusive creature who lives on a diet of loose leaves and green papers. A soft, furry mammal, The Vole shuns broad daylight, especially the rough and tumble of playground duties. He prefers a solitary den, where he processes vast mounds of paperwork, rather like his cousin, The Beaver, with equally little effect.

The Vole has been known to put his head round the door of his office, sight an oncoming Year 11 and withdraw back into the warmth and security of his natural ecosystem.

He is soft-voiced and seeks the protection of rougher beasts, such as The Rottweiler - also known as deputy head - or, to reflect their importance to The Vole, a member of the senior management team.

The Vole has developed his own system of calls, known as verbiage, and uses these to ensure that communication is limited and its whereabouts unknown.

His reticence may prevent him from attending your interview, which he would find too nerve-wracking. The Vole is now thriving in British schools.

* Habitat under his desk

* Do approach carefully

* Don't try to stroke him.

Who knows? If you play your cards right, you too may one day be a head. You may even belong to an as yet undiscovered species. But remember: when you're interviewing your first nervous PGCE student - that was you once upon a time.

John O'Donoghue is a supply teacher who lives in Brighton

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