Nearly, but not quite the full story

27th October 1995 at 00:00
The Boss: The Head's Tale, BBC2, October 28, 7.20pm.

Was it because I was an only and often lonely child that I often day-dreamed of being in a film of my own life? Or does everyone do that? Even now, while driving, I sometimes explain my personal philosophy to a ghostly television crew. As such, it seemed entirely natural to me that Pat Collings should want to present a portrait of a headteacher's life to a national television audience. The only difference between my daydream and her reality lies in the fact that instead of being followed round by a documentary team, Pat Collings, head of Sinfin Community School, Derby, made the programme herself, in the video diary style of the series, The Boss.

Between January and July 1994 she toted a camera into lessons, along the corridors, around the grounds, and into her home. Altogether she recorded 120 hours of material, with, she says, the clear and bold intention of letting the world know something of the joys, pressures and responsibilities of secondary headship in the Nineties. "I thought that the feedback to the staff, the school and the neighbourhood would be good. And I do think that a head's life is fascinating."

Fascinating or not, it is certainly busy. The overwhelming impression of the finished programme is of a woman who is running zestfully and hard to keep abreast of her life both at work and at home - taking a staff briefing; dealing with a troubled child; admiring art work ("hold it up to the camera"); fretting in a traffic jam; delighting in a play rehearsal. "Juggling" is how she described it to me. "It's very much in the female domain to be a natural juggler."

All the same, one of her mild regrets about the finished product is that we do not see, as it were, the full juggle. "I was told viewers wouldn't be able to cope with the myriad of human contacts that I have in a day. It would be too confusing."

A head also, she pointed out, deals with many confidential matters. "Whole chunks of my life are sensitive. None of that is there because I wouldn't dream of putting those things in the public spotlight."

If the film is intended to show people what a head does, then this necessary omission is a flaw, for much of the stress of the job comes from dealing with the often violent after-shocks that come from flaws in personal relationships. Just about the only glimpse we have of anything delicate is a short scene in which Mrs Collings interviews a slightly uptight boy. "It was a bullying incident, and I'm not telling you whether he was the bullied or the bully - people will have to judge. His mother and he were quite happy for that to be shown."

The main imperative from the producer, explained Pat Collings, was the need to tell a coherent story with just one or two strands that the viewers would understand. "The ones we agreed on were the management of the reduced budget and our preparation for OFSTED inspection, all interspersed with a look at my personal life."

It is the prospect of that look at the personal life which causes some people to draw back from taking part in programmes like this. For Pat Collings there was a special reason why she was willing to take the camera home. Five years ago, her husband Tony had a stroke which left him partially paralysed and without speech. Since then, as she explains on the programme: "Sound by sound, with the help of speech therapists and physiotherapists he's won back a degree of speech way beyond what was expected."

Pat Collings wanted to show something of that. "I wish I could have had a camera for all of those five years, for his sake, to show his recovery. " So, in part, her programme is intended to provide support for stroke victims and their carers - and, indeed, to recognise the fact that so many people have heavy responsibilities at home, perhaps to elderly parents, or to sick or disabled partners.

"I haven't been able to do an awful lot to support organisations such as the Stroke Association, and I was keen for it to be known what dysphasia was like - so that was on the agenda, so long as Tony was happy with it." Thus it is that Tony appears in the programme, conversing, working in the kitchen, and quite clearly every bit as supportive of Pat as he is supported by her. Their son and daughter, however - grown up and living their own working lives - would allow themselves only to appear as toddlers in a home movie shot in 1967.

Pat's daughter was, in fact, preparing to leave the country to set up a restaurant business in Ireland while the film was being made. She left during the peak of the school's preparations for OFSTED, and in one very telling scene, Pat becomes a little tearful as she explains to a colleague how badly she felt at not being able to give enough time to her goodbyes. "This time is so precious," she says, "And it'll never come again."

This sequence, too - which Pat had to be persuaded by friends and the production team to leave in - can only provoke waves of fellow-feeling from hard-pressed heads and teachers everywhere.

As to the two main storylines, about OFSTED and the budget, they provide the sort of scenes that you might expect - staff meetings, the management team poring over computer print-outs. Every head and governor will utter a loud amen when they hear Pat ruefully saying, "I didn't relish the prospect of having to manage colleagues' redundancies."

The whole OFSTED experience, too - the long run-up, the frenetic drive to provide the documents, the tensions of the week itself - is well portrayed. More importantly, perhaps, Pat's attitude to it all, though diplomatically expressed, comes across very clearly. "The work of a school is a constantly developing process," she says in voiceover towards the end of the programme. "So the imposition of a snapshot assessment of its progress is quite false. The inspection was actually a distraction from planned development. We were glad to see the inspectors go."

Edi Smokum, the programme's producer, believes that the film makes people realise "just how much pressure there is. There's a scene where she goes into the canteen and tells contractors how to build the shelves. At the same time she's trying to teach. I don't know how many people have jobs which show that range of responsibilities."

Making the film, of course, was yet another job for Pat. It involved late night phone calls with the production team, and weekend trips to the editing suite. She should be reassured that it was well worth the effort. Her film demonstrates very clearly that running a school in the Nineties is as big a challenge as there is.

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