Inside the heads of leaders

20th January 1995 at 00:00
Graham Handscomb reviews a collection of conversations with seven headteachers. * Headship Matters Conversations with seven, secondary headteachers By Peter Ribbins and Michael Marland, Pitman Publishing. Pounds 14.95.

Although headship is a burgeoning area of study, the authors of this book claim little is written about what it is really like to be a head in the 1990s. They aim to remedy that and to a large extent they succeed. In encouraging seven heads to talk freely about their formative influences, their reasons for becoming headteachers, and how they fulfil the role, a series of rich portraits are assembled.

Less satisfactory is the somewhat cosy feeling conveyed throughout each interview. Open-ended questions range across wide areas, but lack interrogative bite and critical exploration. Thus Valerie Bragg is allowed to be somewhat disingenuous about hostility to CTCs and Michael Marland to wax polemical about inner-London politics. Generally one has the feeling of having rubbed shoulders with some considerable egos spiced with the tang of humility, and a tantalising awareness of some things left unsaid.

The interviewees represent varied backgrounds and experience. The four men and three women include heads of a GM school, a CTC, a girls' school, a sixth-form college, and locally managed schools of various sizes. One was in her first headship. They were interviewed by one of the authors during 1991 and began by reflecting on their own schooling and upbringing.

Influence of mothers and grandparents dominate, less so fathers. Most were critical of their own schooling but identified key influence by certain teachers.

Early professional experiences contain some anecdotal gems. While at Cambridge Michael Marland describes how his fiancee asked a total stranger for lodgings and he turned out to be the famous DNA scientist Francis Crick, and Harry Tomlinson remembers tutoring a primary school teacher in Kuwait who eventually found notoriety as Leila Khalid, the Palestinian terrorist.

Contrasts between different views of headship and management styles are the most intriguing feature. While Valerie Bragg identifies her role as a "benevolent dictator" in the early stages of change, Peter Downes says he aimed to puncture "expectation of the staff that you had some instant wisdom to pass on".

Brian Sherratt emphasises the need consistently to "maintain tone and order" while Elaine Foster highlights "doing a lot of listening and a lot of affirming". One of the strongest characteristics they all share is the imperative to be adaptable. Sue Benton says that while "you do not readily adapt your aims or philosophy", strategies need to be adapted to each new context.

The most powerful message to emerge is that coping as a head is less about adopting any particular style than about the dynamic between the individual personality and the manifold pressures of the modern headship. This is most manifest in the strong sense of ownership expressed by all of them. "I feel personally upset when people speak badly of the school"; "I love the school and think of it somehow as an extension of myself" are typical reflections.

This rich insight into headship today will be valued by both established and aspiring heads. It will help dispel the mystique associated with headship by confirming that sound management is about common sense, a judicious blend of vision and pragmatism, and, above all, lots of hard work and long hours.

Graham Handscomb is deputy headteacher at Tabor High School, Braintree, Essex.

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