When the stand-in falls down

21st November 1997 at 00:00
When an acting head is appointed it's usually only for a term or so. But sometimes they stay longer, which is fine - if they know what they're doing

Imagine the outcry if a headteacher were appointed without an interview. If no one checked their professionalism. Or if no one asked them to demonstrate their leadership qualities, or to prove their ability to inspire others. If no one tried to discover their vision for the school.

When heads are appointed without an interview, they are given the title "acting". Usually, it's for a term or so, but in my school we had an acting head for two, very long, years.

Despite the acceptance of equal opportunities, in which every job is advertised, deputy heads are promoted to acting head because they happen to be in the right place at the right time. This happened at my school.

I was a class teacher when an advertisement appeared in the staffroom for an acting deputy. I applied, was interviewed rigorously by a team of governors, and was selected from five experienced candidates. I was excited about my promotion and was confident that I was up to the job because I'd proved myself at the interview.

But I began to have doubts about our "acting" leader on the first day. After plenty of lively discussion between the staff, the acting head was supposed to bring the in-service training day to a close by bringing us to an agreed decision about school policy.

We went home at 4pm without any decision. I knew then that we had lost a leader. Our acting leader seemed to be muddling through.

This affected me directly - as acting deputy and full-time class teacher. The indecision was constant, and led to frustration and uncertainty; every day members of staff asked me to clarify important issues. Two classroom assistants asked me in July if they would have a job in September, because the acting head hadn't decided yet.

The day-to-day organisation of the school also became confused. Last-minute change and disruption became a daily occurrence.

Before school one day, the acting head told staff that the mayor would be visiting in an hour. No one else had known, except the secretary. I was out on a course, and the head was covering for the reception teacher, who was at a planned visit to the dentist.

The result? A surprised, unprepared school and an annoyed teacher who was asked to plan and lead a special assembly to welcome the mayor.

I returned later that day to an atmosphere of anger, frustration, and disbelief.

One rainy day, I was teaching science and technology to my class of five-year-olds. Parents were in to help too. The acting head came in as we were working, followed by a camera crew and 15 extra children; they wanted to film. Without any warning, my classroom became a film set. I lost one hour of teaching time, all for a few seconds on a news programme.

In our joint annual review, the inspector slammed the school development plan; it had been written by the acting head the night before. It was incomplete, and contained no measurable targets. None of the suggestions made in the many staff and senior management meetings had been included.

This year's school development plan was again written by the acting head. Diplomatic offers of help from myself and other members of staff were refused. It was like watching a five-year-old trying to write a dissertation. I never did see the final result.

This September, a new permanent headteacher was appointed, after two days of extensive interviews. A teacher recently said: "It's so much better now. The school has a feeling of hope again."

The acting head is gone. Long live the head!

The author wishes to remain anonymous

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