Talking heads: The egotistic altruist

14th February 1997 at 00:00
Alun Phillips, 49, has been headteacher for nine years at Madeley Court School, in Telford, Shropshire, an 11-16 mixed comprehensive with 650 pupils.

Did you always want to be a head?

I eventually wanted to be one. When I was head of history I realised I needed a career. In 1972 I began an Open University degree and became interested in the links between theory and practice. I then started an MPhil on teacher stress which convinced me that there had to be better caring and management of staff and better staff development.

I came across the term "egotistic altruism", which means that there's no harm in getting a buzz out of something if you're helping other people at the same time. I became very involved in the Schools Council Industry Project and organised a lot of school-based staff development.

When I became a deputy head in Sandwell, in 1982, I was responsible for developing an appraisal scheme which had a strong staff development focus.

How would you describe your style of headship?

An adviser once told me it was idiosyncratic. I think I have a "hands-on" approach. I'd hate to go to a meeting and not know the answer to a question about the school. I do a lot of "management by walking about", but don't have as much time for this as I used to. I do believe in the concept of multiple leadership and letting other people take the lead. It's good for them and it helps me. I'm like Mrs Thatcher on one thing, when she said if you bring me the problem, bring me the solution too. I have high expectations of myself and the staff.

People probably think of me as a workaholic. I love reading education books. Every morning I cycle for 14 minutes at 20 miles per hour in the kitchen and read while I'm doing it. I'm good at managing time because I hate wasting

it and because I want to spend time with my family. If I hadn't been a head I'd have liked to have been an education researcher, working on research with a practical outcome.

What is the most important part of a head's job?

Working with staff, no question. In the end the quality of education to kids is delivered in the classroom. The head has to make life more bearable for staff by making the working conditions better, creating resources, and supporting policies that set parameters. It all depends upon what people are doing in the classroom.

What do you enjoy about your job?

Trying to make things better. I enjoy managing most aspects of the job and have to keep saying to myself that what I'm doing is going to make things better; there are times when that stretches the imagination a bit. I also enjoy helping people come up with ideas that they will then try out.I want people to have time to manage and a sense of responsibility and accountability.

What don't you enjoy?

I cannot think of anything I dislike. Luckily, so far I have not had to go in for large-scale redundancies. One thing that annoys me is fighting to keep the budget on the right side of the cash line.

What are your current concerns?

Troublesome kids being "encouraged" to transfer and the explosion in permanent exclusions. The issue needs to be addressed nationally.

Who influenced your approach?

Graham Butler, head of Warley High School, in Sandwell, who I worked with as a deputy on the appraisal scheme.

What keeps you sane?

My family, reading and going on holidays. We go away every half-term. A sense of humour helps. Also, if you think about the tragic personal crises some people face, it puts what happens in the job into perspective.

Who are your heroes?

Education writers like Mortimore, Hopkins and Sammons. They remind you what it's all about. Also the comedians Tommy Cooper and Billy Connolly. A lot of my management jargon is based on Billy Connolly.

If you were Secretary of State for education?

The usual things about more money and making sure the LMS formula worked on actual not average staffing. In addition, the DFEE doesn't seem to do much research now. I'd resurrect that and particularly look at the issue of parents as education partners. It is fundamentally important to how kids develop.

Kate Myers is an associate director of the International School Effectiveness and Improvement Centre (ISEIC) at the Institute of Education, University of London, and co-ordinates its School Improvement Network

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