Steady at the helm

27th November 1998 at 00:00
They may be more wizened than whizz-kid, but, Bob Aston says, older heads bring much-needed stability and the experience to guide schools through troubled waters.

Headlines are pithily written to grab attention and concentrate thought. "Shortage of heads worsens" (TES, September 11) caused me to sit up, as I am a head starting to think ahead to retirement, and concerned for the future of a school to which I have devoted most of my working life. Plenty of doom-laden reports indicate a wholesale flight from headship, just as others seem to predict that mature heads like myself have been trapped in the job by the closure of the premature ill-health escape route. The head is a vital factor in the success of a school, so to see potential heads deterred is a cause for concern.

How surprising then to see "MPs want stale heads moved on" (TES, November 6) The gist of this report was that heads who have served more than seven years in one school are past it. Special pleading this may be, but it ain't necessarily so, and anyway, who wants a stale head foisted on them? To go stale means to lose your sense of novelty. No one in education can complain about anything staying the same. If anything, we are suffering from a surfeit of change, and need staff continuity to give some stability to schools.

In the words of one of my gnarled contemporaries: "I used to a be a whizz-kid once." In those far-off days I may have been guilty of embracing each initiative with more more eagerness than judgment. Now I believe my familiarity with my school allows me to manage the plethora of change that is our daily lot. Visitors who come to the school only once a year, such as the inspector, invariably seem surprised and say: "Hallo, are you still here then?" I also miss parents looking past my former youthful figure in search of the headteacher. They used to think I was too young to be a head. Now they instantly recognise the grey-haired figure with the bowed shoulders, and bring their problems to me, trusting in an instant wise solution borne of experience. Although "Solving society's problems is not our job" (TES l0.7.98), knowing a child's family history helps put their problems into context and may help with their education.

Knowing the school well is a prerequisite to managing change effectively - and who can claim to know a complex institution like a school after a mere seven years? Perhaps youngsters just don't have the stamina nowadays.

One article,"What it takes to be a leader" (TES, October 31), correctly identifies good heads as those confident enough to take risks, but who have some self-doubt. In my experience, whatever the public persona, most heads have a lot of self-doubt, and reading the headlines does little to dispel it. But there's always an exception, and "Thirty years before the mast" (TES, November 6), Tony Maxwell's account of his three decades at St Michael's school, Cleveland, is positively uplifting.

Echoing the MPs, a headteacher friend recently told me there are old heads, and there are effective heads but there are no old, effective heads because they go stale and lose their sparkle. I hope to prove him wrong while I still have a glimmer of life left.

Bob Aston is head of a junior school in Kent

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