'It's a bit like a ship's captain in a storm'

1st November 1996 at 00:00
KATE MYERS TALKS TO ERIC MEADOWS. ERIC MEADOWS, 60, has been head for the past 14 years at Westdene Primary, Brighton, a 518-pupil school with a unit for pupils with special needs and a new nursery department.

Did you always want to be a head?

I came into teaching late having had various jobs. I felt that teaching could change the world and did a two-year mature students' course at Bognor Regis college. When I started I knew I wanted to influence what happened - which meant becoming a head. After five years of teach-ing I became deputy of a two-form entry primary and two-and-a-half years later I became head of a middle school. I came to Westdene 10 years later.

What is your style?

I try to set up structures and then trust people - "management by values". I do not believe in decision-making by consensus but I do believe in listening and I can be influenced. I don't think you can have collective responsibility in a school. It's a bit like a ship's captain in a storm - you can't go into discussions in situations where you need a strong helmsman.

I believe in giving people responsibility, freedom and space. There is no magic blueprint, you have to accept different teaching styles and let people teach to their strengths. I wouldn't judge a school by how up-to-date its paperwork was, I'd judge by process, particularly the quality of relationships.

What do you get from governors?

A reflective dimension to decision-making; they are trusting and supportive and do not get closely involved in the day-to-day workings of the school.

What do you gain from your local education authority?

Expert advice, although they are forced to spend too much time on inspection. I believe in quality but don't believe you bring about improvement through inspection.

What is the most important part of your job?

Being a leader and a person who can move people. I believe in "hara" power - that is, empathetic power where people are striving together to achieve what they want to do. You have to be good with people and able to listen, emphathise and sympathise. You have to retain your humanity. I see other heads who stop being people - they join the dark-suited brigade and stop speaking their minds.

What do you enjoy most?

The challenge and opportunity. The variety. Being able to help people and to convince them that sometimes answers are not easy, nor is life, but usually there is a way through.

What don't you enjoy?

Nothing. It's one of the best jobs in the world, though I could do with more time to be in the fresh air and exercise.

What are the most difficult things you do?

One wants to be kind but sometimes you have to be tough in a way that hurts.

Who most influenced you?

Solzhenitsyn, Christian Schiller, Patrick Duignan, who gave me the notion of reflective leadership, and Arthur Razzell, an education guru of the Seventies and Eighties.

What was different from what you expected?

I thought you could please everyone by being nice. I hadn't realised that any one action will displease someone.

How has the job changed over the years?

I used to spend a third of my time with children but not now. Some changes are for the better - for example, the element of competition that keeps us on our toes. It's good for schools to have to try to please the customers. But there are perils too, particularly league tables.

What would you do differently next time round?

Spend more time and thought on appointments.

What keeps you sane?

I'm a Taoist. I meditate and do chi-kung exercises. I play the guitar and sing and like being out in the fresh air. I try and have a sensitive heart but the skin of a rhinoceros.

Who are your heroes?

The singer Bruce Springsteen, the film actor Sterling Hayden who was also a sailor, Thomas Wyatt a Tudor poet, the author William Golding, Reg Revans, the "action learning" guru and the dark lady of the sonnet. I also admire Arthur Rubinstein, the pianist, because of his attitude to life. He was still learning new pieces when he died at 97.

If you were Secretary of State?

I'd make sure that all politicians sent their children to state schools and bring about a funding system that was fair to the primary sector.

How would you like to be remembered?

For caring and never giving up.

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