Minding the business
Managing the Effective Primary School, By Brent Davies and Linda Ellison,Longman, #163;14.95, 0 582 22868 9.
Paul Noble on what primary heads need to know about management. I recall one headteacher who had endless problems with a gossipy cook who could make a meal of everything except food. And another who had difficulties with his caretaker until he was caught making love on the staffroom floor (the caretaker that is) with the glib excuse that at home the dog interfered with his love-life.
These heads were involved in crisis management and they knew it. Now, although the need for such crisis management has not gone away, with LMS and all that, there is a need for heads to employ a wider range of management skills. At the moment, "management" is widely regarded as being synonymous with "making ends meet" and little else, so these three books are a timely reminder of broader issues.
Spear's collection of essays looks towards the end of the second millennium and seeks to offer practical advice on developing those skills that every primary headteacher, no matter how large or small the school, will need to employ, for example, marketing, coping with school-centred finances, and building up partnerships with governors. Recent additions to a headteacher's ever lengthening job description, such as undertaking teacher appraisal and preparing for an OFSTED inspection, are also included for the book seeks to be up-to-date and relevant. But reading about "monitoring quality" and "the education market place", I could not help wondering whether these key issues would seem to be so "key" in five years time. Five years ago, these phrases, if not these concerns, were only visible in the furrowed brows of the few, but one must not be unfair to the contributors to this book who are mainly concerned with the here and now and not crystal ball gazing.
The contributors are an interesting team with a geographical centre in Kent: Sir Robert Balchin, director of the Grant Maintained Schools' Foundation, Geva Blenkin of Goldsmith's College, and the editor, Eric Spear, who was at one time a head in Swaziland. All this and an endorsement from David Hart of the National Association of Head Teachers, who could want more? Well, I would have liked to have seen more bite in the writing, for although the chapters are brief and succinct, the writers are fairly passive towards their subject matter except on emotive issues such as multicultural education and early childhood education, where you expect and get more passion.
For straightforward explanation and advice on something like teacher appraisal, this book will serve you well, but for argument look elsewhere. It was when heads were writing on headship that I inevitably found the substance most worthy of agreement or dispute, but heads are in the minority here.
One small grumble (I know that at some point it will become counter productive to go on about alien jargon) but every time I read "mission statement" or "audit" my eyes were jolted in their sockets with the force of wheels hitting a sleeping policeman.
Southworth's look at primary headship is all about one head's work during the course of a full year. One third of the book is given over to reported conversations, interviews and narrative relating to Ron (the head in question); a third describes the methodology and background; a third consists largely of reflection on the research. Striving to make sense of all this data cannot have been easy, and Southworth describes the writing of the book as embarking on a journey without any clear sense of destination. I find this hard to believe, but true or not, Southworth did get somewhere, indeed he arrived at the conclusion that headship is a way of life, an identity not a role.
"Primary heads dominate teachers in the same way that teachers exercise power over their pupils," he concluded. He became very exercised over the issue of power and domination because, it emerged, Ron dominated his school. What circumstances brought about this domination? Is such domination morally acceptable?
For the answers to these questions you must read for yourself and unravel the complex knitting together of research, theoretical literature and argument. This book is reflective and exploratory and heavy going in places, nevertheless it is essentially slight. What Ron thought, said and did, takes on an astonishing degree of importance in order to sustain the argument. The middle section is full of "I asked Ron . . . Ron said . . . Ron was talking . . . Ron also . . . The next day Ron.. ." "I (Southworth) asked, 'Do you agree with the cluster's aims?' 'Oh yes,' said Ron. And I could tell he wholeheartedly approved of the statement."
Your opinion on the value of this sort of evidence base may differ from mine, but you might consider what kind of hypothesis would have emerged if Ron had been replaced by Linda.
Yorkshire is the geographical centre of the book by Davies and Ellison and half of the contributors are heads. There are similarities with Spear even to the mention of that year 2000, which by common assent, is to be a watershed. But the ingredients of this Yorkshire teacake have been chosen more carefully. Where Spear lurches from material on a General Teaching Council to a didactic piece on behaviour management, Davies sticks to six key areas. These are: educational vision; the curriculum; staff; boundaries (the school and the wider system); budgets; and evaluation. Here one finds business concepts and approaches unapologetically applied to primary school management which is why, perhaps, the world "child" does not appear in the six-pack. Nevertheless, I appreciated the authors' honesty.
When setting the scene in a tightly written but wide-ranging chapter, Ellison relates her analysis of the current educational situation to a model of the school as a system. Input (money etc) affect the processes (national curriculum etc) and result in outputs (testing, accountability etc). Pathfinding (leadership) and pathfollowing (management) are discussed in this collection of essays, which is well worth a look for the insights it offers, given its business perspective. I suspect that some headteachers, reading this book, may end up feeling like voyeurs in a world that is not theirs, for business, like the past, is a foreign country and they do things differently there. It helps to be able to speak the language. The checklist of strategic questions to ask about a school, includes: What is your core activitybusiness?
How do our clients perceive us?
Be warned, you may also be forced to examine your performance indicators.
Paul Noble is headteacher of Blunsdon St Andrews Primary School, Swindon.