Performance is all - especially in the staff panto

24th December 2010 at 00:00

There are many differences between Marlon Brando and me. However, with large amounts of cotton wool stuffed into my cheeks, a cushion under my overcoat and a generous smear of mascara over my upper lip, I can achieve a passing resemblance. He must have used a different brand of cotton wool; I find speaking when your mouth has been sucked drier than desiccated coconut something of a challenge.

Yes, it's staff panto season again, and I have been cast as the Fairy Godfather. I was going to rise above the whole thing, as befits my status as someone with more power than any capo, but some staffroom wag signed my name up on the list. It could have been worse, but fortunately my deputies had been typecast as the Ugly Sisters before me.

Rehearsals have been great fun, and the script rips with all the finesse of a chainsaw through every hallowed aspect of our school-improvement drives. We are into coaching at the moment, so there's the Real Time Mentor on stage, coaching Cinderella: "So, I hear what you are telling me about wanting to go to the ball, Cinders. Tell me, what colour do you see when you think of the transportation barriers?" All the catchphrases I never realised I used are set up and knocked down like skittles before a wrecker ball. The Lord of Misrule reigns.

And hurrah for that! It is enormously cathartic for a staff to laugh at itself. It takes a peculiar kind of strength to throw yourself wholeheartedly into whatever you are asked to do, yet be able to stand back and mock it at the same time. It's no coincidence that the last time we did this, not a single member of staff was off sick during the last gruelling week of the autumn term.

Our business manager recently joined us from the world of corporate finance. He admires the pains we take to look after staff and the time we spend smoothing over strife. He is used to a world where people know that if they do not deliver, they are out. Performance is all.

It is a culture that successive governments have tried - and failed - to introduce to schools. The recent white paper makes the right noises about the importance of teachers to schools' success, and the predictable raspberries about toughening up performance management and linking pay to results.

Nice try, Govey, and here are a few reasons why it will not work. The recent South West biathlon championships (leave Kingsbridge 06.45, return 19.20); the Mysteries, performed every evening of the last week of term; the debating society returning late last Wednesday after winning the English-Speaking Union competition; this year's Christmas fair involving the whole community, and starring Dylan the geographer as Santa's Little Helper in a stunning elf costume.

Has the penny still not dropped? How about these? The weekend A-level RE revision conference; the weekly after-school subject catch-up sessions; the teacher who goes to climbing club every Monday evening to look after Raymond, whose special needs mean he might well launch himself off the climbing wall pretending to be an aeroplane; the phone calls home at weekends because it is more convenient for parents.

This is not sentimental Dickensian Christmas guff. The need for teachers to deliver a hard-edged output is as strong as in any business, whether that is defined in terms of exam results or moral and confident citizens. The difference is that we do not achieve this through systems and processes, but through relationships. They depend on open-ended goodwill, not contractual obligation.

Unless teachers can engage and inspire, win trust and respect, show care and commitment, little of value will happen. I have recently been meeting every member of staff, and my first question is what they see as the strengths of the school. Two answers recur: the quality of relationships between staff and students, and staff's willingness to go the extra mile for the kids.

A regime of threat will never achieve that. Nor will the crass methods of communities secretary Eric Pickles, who has stopped providing refreshments for meetings of less than four hours. I prefer the methods of our first child's midwife. She took the proffered bundle of baby and put it, to my wife's consternation, straight on the floor. "Aren't you going to look at the baby?" asked my wife. "No, dear, I'm going to look at you, because if you are well, then the baby will be too."

Look after your staff and they will look after your children. Happy Christmas!

Roger Pope is principal of Kingsbridge Community College, Devon.

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