Size it up

23rd February 2001 at 00:00
To a successful deputy, the vacant headship at that small school looks mighty tempting. But before you post your application, there are one or two things to consider, says Bill Finch.

You're a popular, "Ofsted-approved" deputy head. You're a successful professional, full of drive and motivation - a true example of excellence. As deputy you've been running your school brilliantly since your head departed suddenly with a stress-related illness.

Teaching colleagues work extremely hard for you; they know you have risen through the classroom ranks.

You remember those probation days as supply teacher, doing riot policing with rude, disruptive pupils in dark, rotting, dismal, barren classrooms. You took on the impossible and the unteachable. Nothing was too much.

Now everyone encourages you to move on and up. Headteacher! There is only one question: "Do I go for the headship of that small school?" The teaching head is, after all, one of the most highly tuned and hardworking managers in education today. There are many reasons why you should go for it, but be prepared to ask yourself some crucial questions before taking up what might well be a poisoned chalice.

Try putting these "positives" for moving to a small school in order of importance:

* Fully develop your professional career.

* Utilise your leadership and managerial skills.

* Earn more money.

* Enable children to learn more effectively and make their lives a little better.

* Fulfil other people's expectations of you.

* Exercise your ability to organise and lead others.

* Put your fresh and revolutionary philosophy of education into practice.

* Help produce a better society.

* Enjoy a managerial post with 13 weeks' holiday.

* Further develop your vocation as a teacher.

That's fine for now. I could go on, quoting from training documents and government papers, but many of their authors have probably never set foot in a small school classroom.

One thing is certain: the small school is unique. But before you pack your suit and toothpaste and set off for that first interview, you should seriously consider the following crucial questions: Would you be able to preserve your own professional integrity while teaching up to five days a week, as well as dealing with full headteacher duties?

Have you had the quality of training needed for teaching headship?

Could you handle irate parents after a long day teaching? You have no buffers in a small school.

Would you be happy earning little more than the deputy head of a large school?

Could you deal with meddlers, who are more likely to offer criticism than praise?

Could you go home at night and forget about the day?

Could you deal with ever-changing and constraining govrnment legislation?

Could you implement your own exciting philosophy of education under constant fire from Ofsted hit squads?

What use are long holidays, if they are full of paperwork, planning and constant anxiety?

Could you cope with teaching four age groups in one class, given that new government schemes are clearly designed for single-age classes in large primary schools?

Could you take on the massive, nationally imposed workload with limited resources? Remember a teaching head cannot delegate.

Would you be happy breaking European Commission work regulations day in and day out? You will work long hours, be responsible for security and first aid, and for the myriad other jobs a teaching head faces, such as cleaning up the sick on Monday morning. Then you have to teach a class of children.

Have you made up your mind yet? The key point is the incessant pressure: you are the one expected to solve all the problems. And never forget that pressure is invisible. It works like a virus in your nervous system, slowly destroying your professional confidence and self-esteem.

The pressure on successful teachers like you to become heads is extreme. It is built into your professional development from the moment you start training.

If you can answer most of the above questions in the affirmative, you are likely to make a splendid teaching head of a small school. But you'll have to remember some key points when you walk through the school gate that first day.

* Keep your respect and love of children alive. That's what it's all about, isn't it?

* Keep a sense of proportion.

* Listen to other people. They are important too.

* Always stick to your ideals; your professional integrity is at stake if you don't. Make the most of loyal and hard-working colleagues; they are your greatest allies.

* Really use those holidays to refresh your mind and recover. Your health is your life.

* Give praise where it is due and accept genuine praise when it is given - it's a rare thing.

* Keep your head up high. Yours is one of the hardest and most important jobs in our troubled and divided society.

* Remember that invisible pressure and wear a suit of "mental armour" to defend yourself. Being the successful headteacher of a small school deserves the highest professional respect; those running our education system today should never forget how impossible the job is.

So, you're still going for promotion to a small school? Believe me, it's one of the hardest jobs you could ever take on. I should know, I've been there, done that. I hope these questions and my advice will help you around a few sharp corners.

Bill Finch is a teaching head of a small school in the West Country. He writes under a pseudonym.

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