Humble leaders in a time unfit for superheroes

23rd January 2009 at 00:00

Although I have yet to see the official figures, my guess is that sales of Superman outfits are down. The credit crunch has brought with it a new humility. Superhero antics belong to an age when bankers could risk and make billions before breakfast, while we ordinary citizens of Metropolis could only gaze in awe as they performed miracles of economics as amazing as flying between skyscrapers dressed only in their underpants.

The world is wiser now, and much more in tune with the educational Zeitgeist. When the economy is booming, teachers feel like mugs. Maths teachers wonder why they are bashing through Pythagoras when they could be coining it in the City; heads fret over how to stop children dropping litter when they know they could be on a fat cat bonus running Moneycorp plc.

But now we are in the ascendant again, and our talk of deeper values and community cohesion no longer makes us seem like sandal-wearing, new-age lefties. We are now the ones with the answers. We have a final salary pension scheme too. Eat your heart out, you bankers.

The head-as-superhero model for saving failing schools has also been out-of-date for some years now. In many ways, that's a pity because the image of a balding middle-aged man swirling across the playground with his pants over his pinstripes was just too good to lose. But it never really worked.

Failing schools usually have deep issues with their culture and ethos, huge challenges in their catchment area and issues with buildings, staffing and budgets. A superhero head was hardly going to fix all that in a term, even with X-ray vision and a cape.

Back in 2006, the National College for School Leadership launched a different kind of approach under the banners of National Leaders of Education and National Support Schools. The idea was that heads of successful schools, who had already shown experience of working with schools in difficulty, would be designated to facilitate improvement in their client schools.

Forget the staff and pupils standing awestruck in the playground as Superhead swoops around the boiler stack before taking out the school bully with one kick to the temple - this is all a lot more boring. The head in effect moors her own school alongside the client school like a support ship, and whichever staff are needed move across for however long is required to achieve stability and new capacity for growth.

Not only is this all very unheroic, but the NCSL has introduced the whole scheme in a deeply modest way. No bat signal projected across the night sky; no extravagant press releases in The Daily Planet. Just an evaluation after two years of operation that shows the scheme raises standards in both the client and supporting school. On the strength of this, the Government wants there to be 500 National Leaders of Education and their support schools by 2012.

The scheme is a timely resource when the school improvement stakes are being upped - first with the National Challenge and then with "coasting" schools. It is easy to mock these initiatives. I eagerly await the Boasting Schools Challenge for those who underperform in putting gold piping on their blazers.

Yet despite my predisposition towards scepticism, I have been in meetings with officials from the Department for Children, Schools and Families who have taken me aback with their detailed knowledge of these schools and their contexts, and whose desire for no child to be short-changed by its school matches that of the most passionate head.

Floor targets are crude and uncomfortable, but they do mark a clear line in the sand. The language talked at these meetings is uncomfortable too. There are always reasons why a school has underperformed: the maths teachers were all pregnant; the English department was staffed by Kurdish trick cyclists; the head had gout. Yes, say the department's officials, so what? Is that what your students are going to say on their application forms to explain their poor results? No one takes prisoners any more.

So there has never been greater need for National Leaders of Education and their supporting schools. What's in it for the heads? It's an awful lot easier to sit in your office reading your latest glowing Ofsted report than it is to go out and commit to helping another school to achieve the same thing. Steve Munby, chief executive of the NCSL, says it is part of the moral purpose of headship. You become a head to improve the lot of children in your school, so why not do it for children in other schools as well.

Moral purpose? There was a time when that would have had City traders spluttering champagne bubbles up their noses. Moral purpose hardly puts truffles on the table, let alone pays the nanny's wages. Then again, perhaps it's an idea whose time has come.

Roger Pope, Principal of Kingsbridge Community College, Devon.

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