Must good heads also teach?

11th August 2006 at 01:00
In the third of our series, we ask whether school leaders always need classroom experience

Oh yes, the school chief executive was certainly a big influence on my success in life. Can't quite recall his name, but he took a cover lesson once because the history teacher had been downsized. Spent the entire time on his mobile, and when the bell went he'd sold the playing fields and done a deal to replace the Izal medicated with Andrex quilted in every toilet in the school. The puppy logo looked great on our blazers. It's true: no one ever forgets a good chief executive."

When I bump into parents out and about, their most common questions are:

"Will you manage to get any time off yourself over the summer?" and "Do you still manage to teach nowadays?" It's worth unpicking the implicit assumptions here. First, parents think that heads work hard and are passionate about their school. Second, such is their devotion, they would still teach if the rest of their job allowed.

Opinion polls asking which professionals are most trusted put heads at the top. It is foolish to squander that capital. We need parents to believe in our schools, at a national level so that funding levels stay high, and at a local level so that they keep sending their children to us. Parents know the quality of a school is dependent on the quality of its head, and they are more likely to see that quality in a person proven in the hottest of furnaces: the classroom.

All conversations in a school are ultimately conversations with the head.

It is the head who sets the tone, the style, and even the content of those conversations. Is this a school where the adults and children laugh together and smile as they pass in the corridor? Do they talk about learning, in the classrooms, canteen and staffroom? It's the head who leads the agenda and sets the ethos. Everything else can be delegated, but not this.

Of course a head has to be skilled in many areas, but managing the budget and doing the deals are the easy bits. We started on a new pound;3 million sixth-form block this month, funded by the local authority and managed entirely by the school. How do we do it? We bring in quantity surveyors and architects to work with us and manage it on our behalf. The bursar does the money, the personnel officer does the hiring and the head leads the learning: that's the most important job and you need to have been a teacher to do it.

What are the problems to which a chief executive is the answer? One of the most pressing is the shortage of candidates for headship. So let's deal with the causes of that problem rather than offering a chief executive as the solution. Too much paperwork? Employ a business manager. Too much accountability? The leaner Ofsted will help. Too many new initiatives from Government? Keep ministers in post for longer than football managers.

The single most important issue faced by a head, and the most difficult to address, is the need continually to develop new approaches to learning and teaching in a roller-coaster world. Changes mean more work. Structures have to be rethought, long-cherished schemes of work abandoned and an iceberg of personal beliefs about how people learn must be challenged.

Teachers are sceptical about academic research, what supposedly works in other schools and what the Government tells them. A head with the expertise of a teacher has powerful credibility in their eyes, and is more likely to persuade them to change.

In an age of uncertainty we are less inclined to trust professionals, institutions and big business. In this climate, schools stand uniquely as fortresses of moral belief and principled action. Heads are trusted as the guardians of those values: it is at our peril that we undermine the foundations rooted in their experience as teachers.

Roger Pope is head of Kingsdown community college, Devon

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