Superman is out

23rd January 1998 at 00:00
Better heads will emerge when people stop expecting miracles, says Bernard Barker

In the Eighties, the big question was how to help the girls get on. Were single-sex schools the answer? No one worried about the boys. Competitive and dominant, the lads were masters of a masculine universe, assured of grades, degrees and pole position in the race of life. Their sperm count was not in question.

Suddenly the numbers began to tell another story. Boys were on the slide, messing up their exams and missing out on jobs. Peering down their microscopes, scientists now tell us there's too much testosterone and not enough sperm. Schools scurry to help the boys.

Women's complaints about a glass ceiling on the ladder to headship may drive us to repeat this mistake of inventing schemes to close the gender gap. Why not assertiveness training or a fast track for women teachers? Despite the genuine obstacles to female progress, however, the real pain is on the other side of the glass ceiling, where absurd expectations of top jobs and top people discourage excellent candidates of both sexes.

Bullying, management games and fear of coming last seem to be designed into our work, excluding or damaging men and women who want more from life than threat, toil and adrenalin. The real human rights grievance should be with an education service which asks isolated leaders to accept unlimited responsibility and unrealistic objectives.

My life as a head seems in retrospect to have been an eventually self-defeating pretence that I possessed superhuman powers. Naughty children, upset parents, jaded teachers, unsafe buildings, league tables, Office for Standards in Education inspections, discipline cases and redundancies were all the same to me. I believed that my duty was to soak up the punishment without complaint. Eighty hours a week and almost no absence in 27 years.

You do not need to be a woman for this formula to cause stress. Once, when our children were young, my wife was ill, so I sent the bursar to help while I fielded trouble at school. When our son was paralysed with migraine, I rushed him home, rang the doctor and hurried back to a governors' meeting. When my wife was on a trip to France with her class, our daughter collapsed with a painful, feverish headache. I gave her Aspirin, bought a jigsaw puzzle featuring marmalade cats and popped home in free periods to check she was all right.

When I started as a head, my energy seemed unlimited. I had the youthful confidence that life's misfortunes happened to other people. Divorce, disabling disease, debt, violence, mental illness, stagnant careers and bitter disappointment seemed alien afflictions, brought into my busy room by colleagues, parents and children built from inferior stuff. My scheme of improvement did not allow for suffering humanity nor my place in it. Two winters ago, when I found myself in tears for no reason, when I saw myself as broken if not defeated, I had a richly deserved lesson. I was human too.

I have been an activist always, the very opposite of the Stoic humanist who might have smiled at my troubles. My need to respond to every challenge, to bear any burden, "to be a Man, my son!" very nearly destroyed me.

Some of this is my own, irremediable fault, part is not. Political imperatives oblige male and female heads alike to search for perfection in themselves and others. As we strive for the distant target, we neglect the soul and lose our delight in the present. Women's lives hinder women's careers but men's work is equally ill-adapted to human need and human happiness. We have to break the mould of headship if we are serious about advancing women, helping men and improving the quality of education. We might begin by expecting less of everyone.

Bernard Barker is principal of Rowley Fields Community College, Leicester

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