Unions clash on heads' future role

12th June 1998 at 01:00
MPs were this week urged to consider that the top job in schools should be shared around. Sarah Cassidy reports.

THE BRITISH education system must end its obsession with the importance of the head and share responsibility among teaching staff, teachers' unions have told a government committee.

Headteachers could become "superfluous", with teachers each taking the job in rotation, the House of Commons education select committee heard last week.

The members of the committee, which is considering how the headteacher's job must adapt to serve schools in the 21st century, revealed that they found the idea of a flatter management structure "very exciting".

Giving evidence, John Bangs, the National Union of Teachers' head of education, and Eamon O'Kane, deputy general secretary of the NASUWT, stressed the need for heads to have a teaching background. But they said the crucial relationship was between teachers and pupils in the classroom.

Committee member Caroline Flint, Labour MP for Don Valley, echoed this view. "Schools might evolve a structure that was much flatter, raising the professional status and creating more collective responsibility for teachers in the pedagogical role," she said. "The role of heads might become superfluous. The pivotal relationship is that of the teacher and the children in the classroom."

Mr Bangs said heads should remain the lead professional, while the NASUWT called for a team approach. Mr O'Kane said the hierarchical structure of English schools was unique in Europe in placing such emphasis on the head's role.

In Spain, he said, the post rotated between teachers. "Other systems do not have this obsession with the role of the head. It is the performance of teachers in the classroom that is crucial. We need a salary structure that reflects this."

Committee member Valerie Davey, Labour MP for Bristol West, received broad support for her view that the headteacher "needs to be the first among equals - maybe someone who only does it for a year".

Mr Bangs argued that the load could be lightened for heads by appointing bursars to deal with school finances. "Far too often school secretaries are responsible for enormous amounts of money with little training. If there was to be a flatter management structure we would need to consider responsibilities that have gone to the head on a non-costed basis," he said.

The question of whether every school needed a head, or whether one could oversee several schools, was divisive. The NASUWT favoured grouping small primaries together under one head, while the NUT urged caution.

Although chair Margaret Hodge had appealed for witnesses to give the committee any radical new ideas, committee member Gerry Steinberg said they should beware change for change's sake.

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