Out with the old

9th December 2011 at 00:00

We moved house recently. Needless to say, we felt we could improve on the decor chosen by the previous owners. New buyers nearly always presume that they are blessed with better taste than the former occupants.

We are really no different from the visiting electrician who shakes his head at the cack-handed wiring put in place by some apparent cowboy on an earlier occasion. We never actually meet the cowboy himself, so it seems. The truth is, the next people in always assume that they are somehow more developed, more clued-up. They are convinced that they will do a better job.

New headteachers are no different. Every one of them states at the outset that they plan to either "turn things around", "move things forward" or "build upon the successes" of the past. Admittedly, it would be a fairly odd head who took command and announced that he or she was probably going to move the school backward a little.

Ofsted inspectors seem happy to buy into a new head's optimistic self-assessment. On a rare visit to the Ofsted website (mainly to read our school's own recent report - that was my excuse), I got a bit carried away and began looking at the reports on some other schools known to me around the country.

One very common theme appeared in nearly all schools where a new head had taken over. To quote two typical examples, "the school is now benefiting from more purposeful and focused leadership" and "this school is improving under the positive leadership of the new headteacher". I did not come across a single report that suggested a new head was sailing the school in the opposite direction. This imbalance seems statistically unlikely.

In many such cases, new heads might be making genuine improvements, but for others we are back in the world of the new homeowner and the electrician. There is surely only a fifty-fifty chance that a new incumbent will prove more competent than the previous one. It's deluded to believe otherwise.

The figure may even be lower nowadays. I do know some very fine headteachers, but I also hear about inept andor demoralising heads whose treatment of their colleagues beggars belief. Meanwhile, some of a school's very best potential leaders never aim for headships. In most cases, they fear that the crude, corrupting league-table pressure of the job today would prove too burdensome and too educationally limiting to bring fulfilment. The system consequently filters away potential heads at an early career stage, meaning that the chance of finding genuinely great, truly "educational" heads is probably below fifty-fifty.

And what applies for new homeowners, electricians and heads may just possibly apply to new secretaries of state, too. When Michael Gove walked into the education department, the new homeowner's attitude soon overtook him. He was already set on new wallpaper and a new layout. Rooms were awarded the freedom to run their own affairs and were given a free pot of paint for so doing.

There was, I am sure, a sincere commitment to change things for the better and a conviction that the previous incumbent was pretty clueless. But what will later ministers make of the new wiring and the general decor?

Stephen Petty is head of humanities at Lord Williams's School in Thame, Oxfordshire.

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