The morale maze

13th January 2012 at 00:00

ker-chunk! That was the sound of my jaw hitting the floor. Why? Because I've been looking at some articles I'd missed in recent editions of TES and I noticed that Ofsted's new chief, Sir Michael Wilshaw, had said that a headteacher must be getting something right if staff morale is at an all-time low.

At first I thought I might be suffering from the effects of the Christmas tipple. Then I wondered if my glasses needed changing. But no, this is really what he said, and I find it almost impossible to believe that an ex-headteacher - and by reputation an effective one - could make such an outrageous comment. His school, a difficult secondary in a challenging area, certainly got results, but after reading the interview with him I began to wonder if it ran on fear.

Unfortunately, the success of a school these days, primary or secondary, relies purely on examination results, because this is the only thing the government can measure. And in the wake of that, increasing numbers of headteachers are being appointed who are more akin to slave drivers than people interested in giving children the broadest possible education and a real love of learning. Faced with this kind of headteacher, it is only a short route to staff spending huge chunks of time training children to pass tests, often killing any love for a particular subject.

During the past couple of years, I have met many potential headteachers. One of the reasons was that my school was affiliated to the National College for School Leadership and we were helping to train future leaders. I remember one of them plonking himself into one of my comfortable chairs and pulling a mass of paper from his briefcase. "Don't worry about all that," I said, "Come and listen to our school orchestra. They're amazing." He declined, saying he needed to complete some forms for the college. What kind of head would turn down the opportunity to listen to a primary school orchestra, I wondered.

And then, when my job was advertised prior to my retirement, some of the candidates' questions astonished me. One wanted a full run-down on the weaknesses of staff members. Another didn't smile once and said that her speciality was making sure children with special educational needs got a level 4. A third said he had moved two schools from satisfactory to outstanding by shifting "all the dead wood".

These days, headteachers can become slave drivers for many reasons. If their test results aren't continually high, they can lose their jobs. And of course good test results are essential for an outstanding Ofsted grade, whether or not the school merits it. During the past decade, I welcomed three teachers on to my staff, all from so-called outstanding primary schools. All three teachers had been thoroughly unhappy in these schools, hating the culture of repression, the lack of creativity, the test-driven culture, the atmosphere of mistrust. In all these schools the children were almost as miserable as the staff.

Children can thrive only in schools where staff morale is high, where children are exposed to a range of exciting and interesting activities, and where the head is a dedicated and enthusiastic member of the team, passionate about the excitement of learning. And for Sir Michael to make the comment he did is both insulting and demeaning.

What a way to start the new year.

Mike Kent is a retired primary school headteacher.

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