Wanted: heads who will fight to change the world

7th March 2008 at 00:00
We need people with a burning passion to improve the lot of their pupils, not those simply interested in promotion, argues award-winning teacher David Torn

The purpose of education is to change lives. It is as simple as that. I genuinely believe and hope this is why people become teachers and, even more so, why they go on to headship. Not to seek promotion for promotion's sake, not to court respectability and certainly not to be fast-tracked to senior leadership, but to make a significant impact upon the lives of those they teach and to shape the communities in which their students live. In fact, one would hope that any candidate for leadership would echo the words of Napoleon in that a leader is a dealer in hope, and that they have secured the foundations to communicate their vision effectively.

Growing up in Hackney in the 1980s was tough. Even tougherwhen my mother died in 1981. I was 10 and my dad regularly spent all of his wages in the betting shop or the pub every Friday.

However, there was a place I could go where I knew hope would reign supreme, and that was school. During the 1980s, Hackney was often referred to as one of the poorest areas in Europe in socio-economic terms. Nevertheless, the school that I attended, Hackney Downs (formerly the Grocer's Company School) was one where students were genuinely cared for and encouraged to believe that they could make something of their lives. I can categorically declare that I am a teacher because of the passion that my teachers displayed. Their desire to bring about a fairer society moved me and inspired me to become one of them.

I remember Mr Smiddy, my form tutor, constantly reminding us that our exams would be a passport to a better future, but also impressing upon us the importance of giving up our seats on the bus or looking out for one another. Though I love history, the subject that I teach, it is not the reason I entered the profession. My real passion is education. I have utmost respect for it and know the power it can bring to all, particularly the disadvantaged.

It has become something of a faith for me and I yearn to see more of this passion within schools, and particularly leadership. I do not want to turn this into an attack on those who closed Hackney Downs in 1995, but to ask what happened to the philosophy that was not obsessed with results, but was centred on developing decent, rounded individuals? Perhaps it has not disappeared - perhaps we just need to scratch below the surface and be more vocal in our pursuit of it.

I recently attended a parents' evening at my 10-year-old daughter's school and got into a conversation about education with her teacher. She said that she had been to a conference where one participant had stated, "In education, we value what we measure, but we do not measure what we value". This has become all too evident over the last two decades. Schools and teachers are burdened with league tables, Fischer Family Trust data and inclusion policies. At the same time some teachers are leaving the profession because of the bad behaviour of a small minority of pupils. Schools are not well placed, however, to deal with these disruptive influences because of government pressures to include those who are inclined to misbehave.

In one sense inclusion has become exclusion - exclusion for those who want to learn, but fall foul of those who do not. I passionately believe that we should do our utmost to accommodate those from all backgrounds who do not find school easy, but I also feel schools should have greater powers in calling time on those who have no desire to learn.

Of course schools in the most difficult areas with the most challenging pupils are going to be at the bottom of the league tables - this is not rocket science (I may write a book one day stating all the obvious things in education and call it It's Not Rocket Science). However, it will make life easier if teachers could teach those who wanted to learn. Leaders have a responsibility to speak out. I was one of those students whose education was disrupted by bad behaviour, but I was determined to succeed no matter what because I knew that education was an escape from poverty. Pupils need to know that they are going to learn in a safe environment and they are not going to be held hostage by disruptive elements.

My other suspicion of today's climate is this Fast Track malarkey (soon to be scrapped, but only to be replaced by another accelerated leadership programme under another name). As I mentioned, I want to see people who have a great desire to change lives enter the profession, not social climbers. Though I am sure that the Fast Track programme attracts many excellent candidates who have unquestionable leadership skills, it also appeals to those who have an obsession with being in charge, but do not know what to do when they get there (see Roger McGough's poem, ABOVE). Leaders with poor people skills, but are good at policymaking and implementation of such policies.

Why would one want to be a senior leader in four years? What is the matter with learning the job properly and gathering experience before taking up such posts? What sort of culture is it that suggests you must get promotion immediately or you will stamp your feet? Perhaps I am bitter at not being Fast Tracked myself or are there leaves on my line? Who knows?

There is a serious problem with the recruitment of heads which will only get worse. Sadly, there is a growing core of mainstream practitioners who are not attracted to the job because they do not see it as worthwhile: long hours, constant targets and lack of parental support.

But we must look at the situation in another way. The job of headteacher is vital to the lifeblood of the community. It is essential that schools of the future are led by those who have a burning passion for education and can communicate that message to all around them: visionaries who seek to change the lives of youngsters, and in doing so, inspire another generation of teachers interested in shaping society for the better.

We cannot afford to leave the leadership of education in the hands of those who are more interested in power than people. Good teachers light candles in dark places. Good headteachers pave the way for a better society. It is important, therefore, that those who have a desire to change the world for the better through education stand up to be counted. There has never been a more important time to become a school leader than now.

What is for sure is that we need to get back to seeing education for education's sake, not solely for economic purposes. It must return to shaping the lives of individuals in order to make them active citizens in a caring world. In a society where the wage bill for the football Premiership this year is pound;2.3 billion, and yet the average wage for a nurse is in the region of pound;22,000, it is essential that someone shouts from the rooftops. Or else we risk becoming members of the airhead generation where celebrity is king. Remember the words of Erasmus in the 15th-century: "The true hopes of a nation lie in the proper education of its youth".

The purpose of education is to change lives.

- David Torn is professional tutor at St Edward's CofE Comprehensive School in Romford, Essex, and won Secondary Teacher of the Year in the 2007 teaching awards.


I wanna be the leader I wanna be the leader Can I be the leader? Can I? I can? Promise? Promise? Yippee I'm the leader I'm the leader OK what shall we do?

Roger McGough

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