Meetings? I'd rather teach

25th February 2005 at 00:00
Secondary heads who teach are an increasingly rare breed, yet understanding learning is top of the headship agenda these days. Elaine Williams talks to leaders who are still classroom regulars.

A secondary school can still function from Monday to Friday with the headteacher away on official business. Indeed, many do, although it may cause grumbling and resentment in the staffroom. But given the pressure on heads to keep up to date with the plethora of government and LEA initiatives, it is easy to see how such absenteeism could become habitual, especially from the comfort of a four-star hotel or the en-suite luxury of the National College for School Leadership.

It's equally possible for heads of big secondary schools to sit chained to their office desks dealing with emails, paperwork and interviews on a range of pressing matters: their multi-million pound budgets; performance management; workload restructuring; funding bids; assessment issues; leaking roofs; governor disputes; disgruntled parents. The list is endless.

According to John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, most heads work at least a 65-hour week in an increasingly demanding job. The need to be a good organiser and strategic thinker is therefore crucial. But the latest educational thinking has focused on the quality of learning as the key to a successful school. Heads must show that they are passionate about teaching and learning, and this must be evident to their staff, says Robin Attfield, assistant director at the NCSL. Many heads,says John Dunford, want to teach but regard it as an expensive luxury. But there are some heads, albeit an ever shrinking minority, who believe that one of the best ways of achieving this is to take the title of headteacher quite literally. They teach; that is at the heart of everything they do.

Guy Hutchence, head of Cedar Mount high school, Gorton, Manchester.

Never ask staff to do anything that you would not be prepared to do yourself. That has been Guy Hutchence's motto ever since he took over Cedar Mount, a tough inner-city school, four years ago. And that means doing lunch, break and bus duty every day; it means picking up litter; and it means teaching too.

Cedar Mount was emphatically taken out of serious weaknesses last month, with Ofsted inspectors classing 80 per cent of teaching as good or better and one third very good or better. As if confirmation were needed of the inspectors' verdict, Ofsted also asked to make a return visit to write up two "cameos" of excellence as exemplars for other inspectors.

Mr Hutchence, 46, feels vindicated. Four years ago one third of his teachers were supply staff. Since then he has taught art, history, GCSE media studies, and pupils in "remove" (those on fixed-term exclusions placed in an on-site unit). Next year he expects to move on to citizenship and religious education. His day begins at 5.30am and ends late; he spends about 10 hours a week teaching. These days he says he has a "passionate" staffroom at Cedar Mount, with many young teachers "who are here because they want to be here".

He believes his personal commitment to teaching is essential in this kind of school. "In a challenging school it is important that a head does all the things he expects his staff to do, and that means teaching the most challenging classes. I want to put myself on the front line and that sets an example."

From the beginning, his direct contact with "the most recalcitrant as well as the highest achieving children" helped to shape school policy. His high-profile and constant presence, he says, alongside that of other senior staff also required for daily duties, gives pupils a feeling of security:

"No pupil needs to feel vulnerable."

By carrying on teaching, Mr Hutchence says, he has felt better able to shape the kind of school he always wanted to be head of: where pupils feel wholly supported by the adults who work there. "I like being in school. I could be away at meetings every day of the week, but that's not what I'm about."

Mr Hutchence also operates a "bottom up" system of lesson observation for coaching young staff. During these sessions his NQTs are the ones who "go round with the clipboards" He says: "It's really important that they see that an old lag like me is prepared to undergo observation like everybody else."

Cedar Mount pupils believe the school has improved because of Mr Hutchence's example. Rebecca Grossett, 16, was taught media studies by him last year. Now at college with the aim of becoming a PE teacher, she says he provided constant motivation. "He's very funny, very dry and great at giving extra support. He has helped to build that relationship between pupils and the rest of the staff."

Kinza Siddiqui, a Year 10 pupil, says: "He's a very friendly headteacher and he will help people after school. We look up to him: he's the one who sets the standard."

Marion Gibbs, head of James Allen's girls' school, an independent day school in Dulwich, south London.

Marion Gibbs, 53, is a classicist and former HMI who has been head of James.

Allen's girls' school for the past 10 years. She teaches, she says, "more than most heads I know". This year, typical of most, she has taken on a double period of civilisation (history of art, citizenship, Greek mythology, world religion) to Year 7s; PSHE to Years 10 and 11; and AS-level Greek. "My motto is people before paper," she says. "Knowing your pupils is vital. How can you manage your school if you don't know all your pupils or understand where they are coming from? Teaching is the best way of getting to know them."

As a classicist, Ms Gibbs is passionate about her subject, and until last year she was also chair of the Council of the Joint Association of Classical Teachers. She wants her girls to know about their heritage through classical language and knowledge of civilisation, "which is the root of so many things". She is determined to help keep it alive in schools. But it is the contact in the classroom that is crucial to her understanding of her pupils and "where they are coming from". She says: "I see how they interact with their peers at close quarters; I can tell what they are feeling about themselves. I see school as a huge family in which we should all know one another. Knowing pupils to that extent is crucial to the way I want to run my school."

Ms Gibbs says she appreciates that people come to headship with "different strengths" and that she too has to spend time behind a closed door (she puts in a 75-hour week, about 10 per cent of which she spends in the classroom). But her time as an inspector helped her learn to prioritise and to absorb and read documents at speed. "My style of headship is being a teacher. I feel passionately that that's me." She senses that carrying on teaching has also helped in her relationship with parents. "I do parents'

evenings like every other teacher and I have to write subject reports. I think parents really like that level of involvement."

Teachers, too, are appreciative. "I think you gain their respect because you are prepared to be in the classroom as well. But that's not why I do it. I teach because I want to know my pupils and because I love my subject."

Frances Shaw, head of classics at James Allen's, says the fact that the head has taught every girl in the school at some point makes an enormous difference. "At events such as the leavers' ceremony, for instance, it is evident from the way she interacts with them that she really does know the girls," says Ms Shaw. She also feels staff are reassured that the head understands the pressures teachers face. "We might be talking in a staff meeting about lessons that have gone completely pear-shaped, and the fact that she can talk from her own experience as well is enormously helpful."

Dennis Richards, head of St Aidan's Church of England high school, Harrogate, North Yorkshire.

Jacket off, Dennis Richards is enjoying himself. He has a group of 17-year-olds in front of him, his AS religious studies class, and the mood is relaxed and jovial. The subject is religious conversion and he's in full flow giving the Latin definition of conversion - convertere, to change direction - when Lizzie Tillyard heads off at a wild tangent.

"Did you know," she asks, "that Jesus appeared in a frying pan the other day?" She's been reading the tabloids. There is uproar from the class, but Mr Richards is unfazed. Indeed, he is curious. He wants to open up a debate with his classroom sceptics. Jocelyn Cook, dependable for his random thought processes, is unimpressed. "How do we know when we're cooking that it's not Elvis sending messages to us: 'I'm not really dead I've just come back as an omelette'?" By now everybody is in fits and Mr Richards is grinning appreciatively. "There's not a lot you can say to that," he says.

He relishes such diversions; they keep him on his toes.

Mr Richards, 59, has been headteacher at St Aidan's, one of the country's highest achieving schools, for the past 12 years, and he has never been without a teaching load (usually about 12 hours a week). He is currently teaching a GCSE mixed-ability religious studies group as well as AS-level RS, general studies to sixth-formers, and extra classes in conversational French. If he didn't teach, his credibility with both staff and pupils would suffer, he believes. "I like the title headteacher, because I am not a chief executive. I have business managers to take the administrative burden. I don't think you can win it with staff unless you are also winning in the classroom. I don't see how your voice can have authority without it."

He acknowledges that the number of heads who no longer teach has "accelerated dramatically" in recent years because the demands of the job have become overwhelming. But he has no time for the view that the head's job is strategic and that teaching is a costly waste of resources. "I think that is an outrageous excuse from people who do not like teaching. I cannot imagine that sitting through a strategic planning meeting can be more valuable than engaging with a group of pupils in their learning."

His philosophy has shaped the senior management team at St Aidan's, all of whom still teach. No one, he says, can turn round to them during lesson observations with the grumble, "and when were you last in the classroom?"

The fact that his AS class on religious conversion got sidetracked and was never concluded is part of the pressure and joy of teaching that he needs to experience alongside his staff. Pupils also appreciate it.

According to Lizzie Tillyard: "Once teachers become heads and stop teaching it's so easy for them to lose touch with teenagers. Mr Richards makes sure that he knows us." Hannah Timmis, 16, agrees. "He's not the superior who's out to get us. He helps to break down barriers between teachers and students. You can talk to him about your problems."

Terry Smith, St Aidan's head of art, says a head who does not teach runs the risk of becoming "sterile". "You might be good at managing, but empathising with young people would become increasingly sterile," he says.

Jacqui Hardy, head of psychology, says: "Staff know that Dennis's students like to be taught by him, and that helps to create the very buzzy atmosphere that we have here. When you are teaching you are ruled by bells, you have to be prepared, you have to get in there and be there. There is a constant sense of urgency and Dennis experiences that like the rest of us.

It's very easy for a manager who no longer teaches to forget what it's like."

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