Rejoinder to a quizzical cabbie

15th December 2006 at 00:00
On the way to the National College for School Leadership last week, I got into a cab at Nottingham train station. The driver was a young man who asked me if I was a headmaster. Once I had put him right on the terminology, he asked: "What does a headteacher actually do?" Good question and one I always find difficult to answer.

How do you describe what a leader does? I thought about what I had done this term and came up with a list (in my head) of all the things I do. But then I realised that the things I think I do are actually done by other people. All I do is interfere and ask lots of questions and generally get in the way.

On a serious note, I do spend most of my time talking to people about what they are doing, or what they are going to do, and asking them about the impact on children's learning. This is because we are still trying to move from the descriptive Ofsted S4 self-evaluation form to the "So what?"

factor expected in the new SEF.

This term has been even more eventful than usual. Running a large, inclusive, extended comprehensive requires excellent management and leadership skills - not just mine but those of my team. Curriculum, staffing, budget, training and development, behaviour, discipline, parent and pupil participation, not to mention teaching and learning are part of the everyday work of any school. I know how lucky I am to have a team of professionals who can take responsibility for these areas - primary school heads usually have to be responsible for everything themselves.

However, I am aware that the bulk of my time (and that of my senior leadership team) is not spent on the nuts and bolts of what is going on in the classroom. We know that this should take priority, but there are so many things that throw us off track. For example, as we arrived in school to start the autumn term, we soon realised that the planned building works (six schemes) due to be completed at the start of term were not nearly finished. In addition, we suffered floods, power cuts and broken heating systems. This caused severe disruption for staff and pupils. My part in trying to resolve matters was to tear my hair out and make a fuss with the contractors and the local authority. (Apparently heads have the ability to get things done and to get the "powers that be" down to sort things out.) In the meantime, my team sorted out the logistics of running the school.

A more serious issue for me this term was an outbreak of racial tension and a number of racially motivated incidents in the school and local area. My part was to worry and to despair - I am human after all. What had we been doing for the past 10 years? We had thought we'd been successful in tacking this complex issue and were devastated that it had resurfaced. I had to remind myself and )my staff that we had been here before and that we had got through worse situations and come out stronger. for it.

In this business you can never tick things off and say they are done. You have to keep revisiting and juggling them with other school priorities. As one colleague pointed out, racism is ingrained in the brickwork and we can't expect to have eradicated it in such a short time. The trouble is, we do.

Back in the cab, however, I did not go into this level of detail. Instead, I told the driver what I thought he wanted to hear - that I tell children and staff off and drink oceans of tea.

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Kenny Frederick is head of George Green's community school in east London

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