Left out of the balance of power

18th November 1994 at 00:00
The career-posturing of a deputy head is "disruptive, time-consuming and about as valuable as a politician's promise", writes a disgruntled member of his staff. The deputy head has arranged a "cultural exchange" with students from Ruritania. Let's all give three cheers for international understanding! Let's joyfully cover lessons while favoured staff take the visitors on day trips.

Let's greet the mayor and tell him how delighted we are. Let's applaud the deputy for his breadth of vision and remind him (because he will almost certainly forget) that it will look very good on his CV.

But whatever we do let's not tell him the truth, which is that his pain-in-the-neck career posturing is disruptive, time-consuming and about as valuable as a politician's promise.

This is the sort of manager who only asks advice from those beneath him if he is absolutely guaranteed to get his own way.

His method of consulting is to inform people about what is going to happen and invite private comment. The problem is that everyone is so frightened of the man that nobody ever objects, except behind his back and in hushed tones.

He believes deeply in consultation, consensus, team work and shared visions. He read all about them on a course. But he only believes in them to the extent that it suits him at any given time.

Agree with him and they have all been achieved. Disagree and he will leave you in shreds on the floor. A teacher who is two minutes late for a lesson is automatically disembowelled, although he is constantly late himself.

His problem is easy to define. The management structure and culture have given him too much power. It is his problem because it leads him into making mistakes. It is also a problem for the school, which has to live with the results of those mistakes and for staff who have been misled into thinking that his is an example to follow if they aspire to be good managers themselves.

Without doubt he will get a headship and when he leaves here he will leave behind a trail of distrust, resentment, fear of taking responsibility, an unwillingness to admit the need for help, the feeling that Big Brother is always watching, a belief that senior staff are more worried about accountability and league tables than about the school community.

He's not a bad man. He does a lot of excellent work and is a first-rate teacher, but somewhere along the line he has gone off balance. Perhaps he never studied the subtleties of motivation.

He doesn't seem to realise that jumping on people from a great height, although sometimes necessary, is generally less motivational than praising people for doing their best.

He hasn't worked out that the reason staff are not volunteering to do extra bits and pieces is because they are afraid that they might fail.

Succeed and you will get a brief thanks, but the smallest slip will bring severe suffering. So why bother?

And now for the big question. Why does the headteacher let this deplorable situation continue? Partly it is overwork. The poor man simply doesn't have time to know everything that is going on.

Partly it is censored vision. His view of what is happening is largely formed from conversation with the deputy.

Partly it is conditioning. he has been there so long, seen so many staff changes, dealt with so many problems and listened to so many speeches by education ministers, that he half believes that most teachers really are lazy whingers who need a good kicking.

As his crusading spirit and burning heart have slowly faded so he has been invaded by a strange belief that grievance procedures and accountability charts can actually replace relationships. he is as afraid as everybody else.

No matter how well the teachers work, he can't guarantee what will happen when pupils sit down to do the exams from which the league tables are so artistically created.

No matter how well the teachers are working, the inspectors may criticise him for not producing some useless pieces of paper and he has no appeal.

So, when he first drew up the school's aims there was something about "bringing out the best" in all the pupils, but now the memos are all about "driving up last year's grades".

There is no harm in that, so long as it is balanced with encouragement, but fear creates an imbalance.

The simple fact is that you can't do your job properly if you spend half your life looking over your shoulder. You won't increase your skills if you are afraid of trying new ideas. You won't work well as a team member if you feel excluded from decision-making.

You won't respect and trust people who show you no respect or trust. If you are treated like dirt you run a grave risk of ending up treating the pupils like dirt. If you are bullied you may well end up a bully yourself.

But don't worry, these destructive forces take a long time to work. The deputy will be long gone before the school has fallen apart. His replacement will wonder how on earth to motivate such a demoralised, demotivated bunch Of course the characters are pure fiction. What, you say you have a sense of deja vu?

This problem is more widespread than I thought.

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar, Buyagift.com, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today