The New Jerusalem can wait for heads;Plaform;Opinion

2nd April 1999 at 01:00
Ministers have a vision for schools but they will have to find someone else to play the starring role, says David Nicholson

"We need headteachers who can develop a vision for their schools and who can generate commitment and support for that vision from pupils, staff, parents and the wider community."

It is to be hoped that education authorities advertising for headteachers in the coming months will have more humble expectations than the Education Minister, if Helen Liddell's words are to be taken as a true indication of the Government's requirements. Or perhaps Mrs Liddell was merely indulging in some fine sounding rhetoric without actually being concerned at the meaning of her words: they do, after all, have an impressive ring to them.

The first problem is with the word "vision". The question here is not "what vision?", but "whose vision?" Historically, people who see visions have tended not to have a very happy time of it and visionary headteachers have fared no better. Neither A S Neill nor R F MacKenzie received much credit from government ministers for the visions of education they espoused and sought to realise.

It seems unlikely then that Mrs Liddell is looking to a future golden age of proselytising headteachers anxious to inspire the children of Scotland with their unique personal visions. It must, therefore, be someone else's vision which the headteacher is called on to develop. But whose?

It is not unreasonable to assume that if the headteacher is to develop a vision it should be that of the local authority. And it is certainly true that over the past decade authorities have increasingly sought to develop a corporate identity and to enthuse their employees with a sense of being members of a corporate entity with shared objectives. Is this what Mrs Liddell is seeking?

The answer will only be known when we have a strong local authority with political aims of a different order from those of Mrs Liddell's party. She will not have a direct interest in managing Scottish education after May, but would she be supportive of the headteachers in such an authority who are active in working to take forward their employer's vision?

But the minister does not just want headteachers capable of developing a vision. They have to rally to the cause pupils, parents, staff and, whatever it means, "the wider community".

The staff ought to be the easiest. They are, like the headteacher, local authority employees and working within the same vision. But is there, I wonder, any headteacher in Scotland today who will confidently make the claim that they and the staff are at one and united in striving to realise their employer's vision?

Many staff are increasingly suspicious of heads who, year on year, appear to grow increasingly indistinguishable from branch managers at the local Tesco and almost all teachers distrust their employing authority. Despite the rhetoric which regularly issues from these authorities lauding the value of teachers' contribution, staff look at their depressed salary levels and understand exactly what value is put on their efforts.

What chance, therefore, of filling pupils, parents and community with visions of that New Jerusalem? Some parents are undoubtedly willing to identify with the school and give generously of their time. But they are a small minority and likely to remain so. What concerns the majority of parents is not the school but the welfare of their own particular child. They may work with the school to serve that interest but can also be aggressively defensive of their child in opposition to the school and its values, as every headteacher knows.

The ongoing controversy over term-time holidays is itself a pointer to where schooling stands in the value system of an increasing number of families.

In a similar way it takes but a glance at the annual attendance figures to conclude that many pupils become increasingly disillusioned with school and the kind of intensive factory farming that prevails in the secondary school. How else is the increase in absence to be explained as pupils move from primary to secondary and through the secondary years?

Jim Cathcart, headteacher of Castlemilk High in Glasgow, would be the last man on earth to push himself forward as a seer of visions but it is clear that his move to initiate a radical shake-up of the third year to motivate less able pupils (TESS, December 11) hardly elicited an enthusiastic endorsement from the Scottish Office or any other quarter.

Yet it is a practical proposal to address a real issue: substantial numbers of young people are being force-fed subjects and pressured into exam courses in which they have no interest or commitment. Is it not time to back an experienced and thoughtful headteacher who has an alternative?

As for the wider community, it is for many schools, in urban areas at least, a mythical construction. In my own experience as a headteacher it was clear that substantial numbers of parents were anxious to send their children elsewhere because the alternative would have been to mix with kids from an area they regarded with fear and loathing.

No, today's head may have strong personal convictions and even a passionate commitment but the role of seer or PR officer for local or national government sits uncomfortably. Much closer to the mark is the actor-managers of former days. In the midst of the maelstrom of policy papers and initiatives from on high, the tensions generated in daily interaction with a demoralised profession and the whims of parents and their offspring the task is to keep the show on the road.

Little credit is given yet it is a task that demands tremendous stamina and determination and one they continue to discharge with distinction.

David Nicholson is a former headteacher in Glasgow.

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