Salutary lesson in the goldfish bowl

16th September 2005 at 01:00
Fresh flowers, en-suite bathroom and a whole admin team: Paul Blum gets a surprising taste of headship.

I'm King for the Day! The headteacher is at a meeting and the other deputies are on a training course. For the first time in three years, I'm the site manager. Because my office is a bit of a broom cupboard tucked away in a distant corridor, I relocate to the head's grand suite for the day.

It's like a small self-contained flat with bathroom and kitchen: five times the size of my office, fully equipped with a plush leather sofa and a large walnut table with a bowl of grapes and the soft scent of freshly-cut flowers. It's on the administrative corridor of this large inner-city school, an oasis of peace far from the noisy student body.

I have been here many times for meetings but never had a chance to examine the pictures and bookshelves at my leisure - to see my head's taste. I know he has Beatles memorabilia, but when does he get the chance to refer to his full set of leather-bound Dickens novels?

The first challenge is making coffee with the huge state-of-the- art machine... I have to call on the services of a cleaner. Several senior colleagues visit to tease me, saluting and standing to attention.

I feel very peculiar sitting here. Outside my door is a whole clerical team who work for the head, including his personal assistant. There are no staff phone extension numbers on his wall: clearly it's the PA who makes those calls as well as keeping his complicated diary. I've always been hugely appreciative of the great support from my part-time secretaryfull time attendance officer who I share with another deputy head. But, in this world, there are massive personnel resources at your disposal. There are no routine tasks that I have to do. My every wish and instruction can be delegated.

But there are disadvantages. My office is my own private space when I shut the door. But, in this palace, I feel as though I am in a goldfish bowl with so many secretaries in proximity. While they are welcoming, they are still writing letters and making phone calls relating to the real leader's pre-determined agenda, reminding me that I am merely a day tripper here.

I have plenty of my own work to do, but I find it curiously difficult to settle in this presidential office. I keep on mislaying my own documents and pens on the many work surfaces in the room. The statistics on ethnic-minority exam results I want to analyse demand huge concentration but, when I finally shut the office door, I feel embarrassed to look at them properly. The head does his paperwork with an open door, with clerical staff and teachers free to interrupt him, and it feels awkward to contradict the normal routines.

Gradually staffing and pupil problems begin to wing their way through to me. A pupil refuses to do his time in the exclusion room. A head of department asks for senior management help to punish two Year 7 boys who have been fighting. A member of staff comes to complain about something in the weekly bulletin. It is business as usual and I start to feel more confident as I take decisions and go into action.

By the time I arrive to start the English GCSE exam, I have begun to get used to the surroundings. Being the head rather than the deputy makes one more self-confident and assertive: when I instruct the pupils to pay attention for the beginning of the exam, I feel my body language has a greater authority.

For the first time, at this school, it is I who decides what the options are in any given situation rather than having to rely on the final decision of others. It feels empowering!

At the end of the school day nothing terrible appears to have happened. I feel absolutely exhausted even though, in relative terms for Islington Green school, it has been quiet and uneventful.

I normally work hard at school but this kind of work feels different. The tension of being the leader of the vast network of people, in the spotlight all day, worrying about what could happen next and whether I can handle it, without making a fool of myself, has exhausted me.

I sit down in the office suite and shut the door. Feeling a little more relaxed now, I decide to unwind and leave my personal mark on this sacred space. The Beatles are temporarily displaced by my own preferred music, 10 minutes of Thomas Tallis's 40-part motet "Spem In Alium".

After the weekend, normal business will resume as I return as a guest and not temporary resident of the school's central operations room.

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