Interview - 'Sometimes there are just too many initiatives to deal with'

2nd October 2009 at 01:00
Bernice McCabe, headteacher and co-director of The Prince's Teaching Institute, thinks that heads have to deal with too many initiatives

How did you get into teaching?

My mother was a teacher and it was in my blood. I took my degree early when I was 20 and, frankly, I wanted another year at university and the grant that went with it. But from my first observation, I just loved it. I felt at home in the classroom and thought it was the best job in the world. I couldn't imagine anything better to do.

Did you always have your sights on headship?

Certainly not. At the beginning I just loved being an English teacher. I loved my subject and the opportunity of enthusing a new generation of people who loved English as much as I did. But when I ran an English department I realised that I enjoyed leading a team of people and really that's what a head does.

What makes a good school leader?

Whatever the school focuses on, a clarity of vision about achieving that is important. Then combining that with good communication skills, the courage to focus on realising that vision and an unremitting desire to realise what it is you're trying to achieve for the children. One of the conclusions that emerged from the PTI's headteachers' seminar a few weeks ago was that a positive outlook that makes staff feel encouraged, valued and enthused is important. This helps a head to gain the support of the school community.

Is there anyone who has been particularly influential?

The person who stands out is Geoffrey Samuel, who was headteacher at The Heathland School in London. I was his deputy in the late 1980s. He epitomised these qualities I just outlined: he was absolutely clear about his vision of the school that he led and about his expectations of staff. I found that invigorating and inspiring. One of the things I learnt from him is to have high expectations of pupils and staff. He was the founding head and 26 of his staff have gone on to headship. It was an inspirational place to work.

Did you notice a big difference between working at schools outside Bristol and then London?

I worked on the fringes of Bristol city to start with. It was a mixed comprehensive that had children from the outskirts and the city. At The Heathland School there was a broader mix, culturally. The (London schools) were bigger and I learnt a lot about the organisation you need to run a large institution successfully.

What do you think are the problems with the curriculum?

What the teachers have told us on the PTI is that sometimes the curriculum today is designed to promote skills rather than knowledge. One science teacher told us that subject knowledge is vital . skills can only be taught alongside rich content. Personally, I agree with that. I think there's less of an emphasis on deep subject knowledge in some parts of the curriculum than there should be.

How could the curriculum be improved?

Maintaining a focus on the subject and then keeping a supply of excellent teachers who are excited by their subject. The Training and Development Agency for Schools did a survey a few months back on what makes a good teacher. The children said first and foremost, a teacher who's passionate about their subject. Pupils respect that most in their teachers.

What do you think is the biggest issue for teachers now?

That process seems to have taken over. We had a panel discussion recently and people were saying that policy-making initiatives in education tend to be driven by perceived problems, rather than by a principal view of what education should be. There seems to an accidental accumulation of policies that don't have a coherent vision. Sometimes there are too many initiatives that don't leave heads with enough time to focus on the core business of running a good school.

How do you think the pupils at North London Collegiate School differ from other schools?

There's a terrific sense of community here between the 1,100 girls. They come from a range of backgrounds and there are 33 languages spoken. We offer places to girls irrespective of their parents' ability to pay for it - about 10 per cent of the senior school have assistance with their fees. It's lovely having the range of ages four to 18 and there are a lot of links across the school in that way.

What would you do if you were education minister for the day?

I would reduce the centrally-driven part of the system. I would also trust the profession more - take away some of the process and mechanism that is in education because it's so deadening. Put teachers back in design of their teaching. That's not to say that should be done without the accountability: give people parameters and objectives, but don't specify detail and allow flexibility.

What's the worst excuse you've ever heard?

"It's not my fault," and I'm not just talking about the girls. Excuses from "the dog's eaten my homework" to "the exam results were not as good as they should be this year because ." and then some external reason.


2006: Co-director of The Prince's Teaching Institute when it was formed out of the Prince of Wales Education Summer Schools

1997: Headteacher, North London Collegiate School

2002-2006: Director of teacher summer schools at The Prince's Education Summer Schools

1990-1997: Headteacher, Chelmsford County High School, Essex, and completed MBA

1986-1990: Deputy head, The Heathland School, London

1984-1986: Head of English, Collingwood School, Surrey

1981-1983: Head of English at Cotham School, Bristol

1974-1981: English Teacher at Filton High School, Bristol.

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