No way to greet a Martian;Last word;Opinion

16th October 1998 at 01:00
AS MORE and more schools are faced with unfilled headships, visiting Martians will soon find it very difficult to make contact with the person running them. "Take me to your leader." "Now let me think, who is it this week?" A few years ago, when eager teachers went to see their boss to announce that they thought the time had come to apply for a headship themselves, they were welcomed aboard, given tips about how to smarm in interviews without overdoing it, encouraged to take on this vital assignment.

Go and see your head on a similar mission nowadays and the chances are you will be offered a stiff brandy. Meanwhile, the school secretary surreptitiously dials 999 to summon the paramedics in white coats, so you can be quietly sedated until your next-of-kin have been informed.

One primary school advertised its vacant headship and got no response at all. In despair the governors placed another ad and received two applicants. Both were summoned for scrutiny, but one withdrew beforehand. The sole remaining candidate turned up for interview, lurched into the room and slumped into the chair with a huge weary sigh. The governors' hearts sank as one. They eventually bullied the deputy into doing the job for a year.

To some extent the problem lies in the dreary notion of "leadership" that has come into vogue. It should be an intensely creative job, yet leaders in education are currently seen by their colleagues as people who push paper around, spend hours trapped in crisis meetings, endlessly escort visitors or potential "clients" on a conducted tour of the premises. It is not exactly a sexy image. However, since headship is to sex drive what hatpin is to balloon, "sexy" may not be the right word.

What is astonishing is that so many heads do manage to preserve their zest. I was in a school when the head came past with his millionth set of potential customers. "This is our resources area," he enthused. Mr and Mrs Sourpuss looked unimpressed. "Say something, you miserable bastards," I felt like yelling, "even if it's only a grunt." But the head cheerfully toddled off to the next vista with the Sourpusses in tow. Perhaps he should change his name to Wallace Arnold.

I love all those television documentaries on "leadership" training in industry and commerce. One set of top executives spent days falling out with each other. They then made a pig's ear of planning some venture for a group of young people that I could have organised with a couple of teachers in half an hour. Another course required members to run across hot coals in bare feet, under the impression that it would enhance their "team building skills", or some equally daft belief.

This second idea I like. You assemble all the bureaucratic bullshit the school has ever received and place it on the ground in an open space. Next pour petrol over it and set it on fire. There is no need for anyone to run across the flaming documents, though it would be worth a few blisters to make sure the remains were no longer legible. Potential leaders would then be bonded together to the end of time, as they gleefully danced up and down on the ashes, symbolically and literally trampling on greyness.

The other cold douche splashed on leadership, and for that matter on training for teaching itself, is the zombie method of training heads or teachers, whereby complex human behaviour is atomised into discrete particles, or "competencies". This mechanical approach, much favoured by the hapless Teacher Training Agency, is an unmitigated disaster.

There are certain prerequisites if we are to end the shortage of candidates for headship. Cosmetic solutions are useless, as are advertising campaigns. Slick and glossy commercials do nothing to address the real problems. Heads should be unambiguously responsible for the quality of teaching and learning in their school. Other matters should take a clear second place. The tyranny of brain-corroding bureaucracy must end. There is no point in merely talking about it. It must go.

Most important of all is to support creativity and imagination, collegiality and trust, not just foster the mechanical implementation of dreary, externally driven missives. What do we want visiting Martians to meet, a human being, or a silicon chip?

"Take me to your leader." "It's that box over there. The one with the dials." Beep beep. "Ex-ter-min-ate, ex-ter-min-ate."

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