There's nothing wrong with a settled staff

22nd August 2003 at 01:00
THE school inspector's tone turned icy when she heard my answer. Her question was: "What is your career plan, Mr Toner?" I replied that I had no career plan and that I was perfectly happy doing my present job, thank you very much.

Then I made it worse by saying that I had never had a career plan and jobs happened to me by accident. Her scribbling intensified and, in clipped tones, she informed me that I should consider the possible negative effects on the school if I stayed too long. I didn't bother to tell her that I had long identified that problem. I gave up on the conversation. I could tell I was on a loser.

Since then I have seen another generation through the school but that conversation still rankles with its implication that anyone who does not plan to jump jobs every four years is feckless and suffering from loose morals. "Not one of us," in the words of Margaret Thatcher. The career plan drives many of our leaders and their acolytes. With their armour-plated self-confidence, they regard their own ladder of success as the only game in town. Those of us not on the ladder are failures. That anyone should commit themselves to a post and stay with it, is an outlandish idea.

I have been in my present post for more than 20 years. There. I've said it.

I have come out of the closet and I am not prepared to accept descriptions like "stuck in a rut" or "unambitious" which are attached to people who are in a long-term commitment. I do not deserve to be hidden under a plain brown wrapper.

The credit for rescuing my shaky self-esteem belongs to a welcome report from the National College for School Leadership in England (TESS, February 21). After sifting evidence of various school factors and length of headteacher occupation, the findings show that long-serving primary and secondary headteachers achieve better results, while heads who are in post for fewer than three years are least successful. The reasons why this should be are for a future report but I suspect that it will highlight good relationships and trust.

Schools are about people - children, staff, parents. Their attitudes and commitment are the vital factors in a school's success and it is the head's job to harness that energy. Fail to do this and you have apathetic staff, complaining parents and disruptive children. All of this seems obvious but it is not something that is accomplished overnight and staff take longest.

The new head who enters and leaves like a whirlwind, pausing long enough to wipe out all that has gone before, just sets up more problems. He has forgotten that members of the school community belonged to the previous regime. Criticise your predecessor and you criticise all those who worked happily with him.

"Superheads" parachuted into "failing" schools in England with the remit of effecting a quick turnround, have not been a success. Even Lady Stubbs, in her self-congratulatory account of how she improved St George's High School, Maida Vale - the Philip Lawrence school - acknowledges failure to take staff with her during her four-term occupation. She was in a position to ignore that problem but I wonder how her successor is coping with the aftermath of Lady Stubbs's whirlwind, celebrity-filled tenure.

Real change and development is based on trust, and genuine trust arises from quality relationships born out of years of working and facing problems together. Once trust is established and continually nourished, new members can tap into it quickly. The whirlwind head can be gone before his mistakes come home to roost. His longer lasting colleague has the opportunity to use mistakes for learning.

My HMI rose in the hierarchy, presumably following her career plan. I stayed on. Now I am reacquainting myself with my first generation of parents and meeting their new grandchildren.

Brian Toner is head of St John's primary, Perth.

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