The role of a headteacher, apparently, is to resist any temptation to provide solutions

5th May 2006 at 01:00
"Experts" sometimes worry me. Particularly those who've moved as far away from classroom practice as possible and then spend their time telling everybody else how it should be done. It's easy to give advice when you don't have to get your hands dirty.

Recently, a newly appointed and disgruntled headteacher wrote to a newspaper seeking advice. She was obviously a new broom anxious to do some serious sweeping, but her staff spent their time talking about the previous head and what a popular and successful leader he was. "I want to make some radical changes," cried the new leader, "but I seem to be the only one with any vision. How do I solve it? What do I do?"

Given that little poser, I wonder what your advice would be? I'd say the new head had to get her jacket off, roll her sleeves up, and prove herself.

You don't just storm in and say you've got vision. You spend a lot of time working out which bits of the school work well and then you build on them, showing your ideas have a worth of their own. Then you look at ways to change the bits that don't. But if you can't carry most of the staff with you, you'll never change anything. After all, still being popular after 20 years was quite an achievement for the previous head, and he must have created a pleasant working environment.

But this is what our expert says: "Thank heavens this sort of avuncular head is fast disappearing! They didn't allow teachers to think for themselves, they were dictatorial, their style was disabling."

The role of a headteacher, apparently, is to resist any temptation to provide solutions, and let staff thrash the problems out for themselves. To me, this seemed an extraordinary view... until I realised the adviser worked with the National College for School Leadership, that expensive government body which seems intent on turning out a particular style of leader who knows a great deal of management jargon but rather less about teaching children.

There is a view that it isn't necessary to have been a successful class teacher to be a successful head. Quite how that kind of thinking gained currency I've no idea, although the sheer weight of bureaucracy must have something to do with it. A modern head needs to be a financial whiz, an expert in employment law and an astute buyer of a range of services, as well as having a wide curriculum knowledge. Children don't come high on the list. But if I hire a plumber I want someone who has worked alongside an experienced practitioner and learned his trade, not a bloke who's only run his eyes over the instruction manual.

I suppose I feel strongly about all this because I'm one of these "avuncular" heads. I'm nearing retirement, but I find my job as pleasurable now as I did a quarter of a century ago. My school works well, according to one of my teachers, because "Mike is always here... and always around the school". My staff are happy and work hard. And yes, they do think for themselves, but I know my experience counts for a great deal, and they rely strongly on it.

This is especially so with youngsters coming into the profession; it's an enormously difficult job these days, and they need the warm benefit of experienced advice - and just occasionally a sympathetic shoulder to shed a tear on.

Even though the professional qualification for headship is mandatory for aspiring leaders, I don't think appointing a good head is any easier - or the success rate any higher - than it was years ago. Like an ice-cream sundae, there's still a fair amount of cream, but with the usual sprinkling of nuts.

Mike Kent is head of Comber Grove primary, London borough of Southwark.


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