When staying put is the right thing to do

6th May 2005 at 01:00
I have always had a secret ambition to be a politician. I fancied the idea of standing up for my principles, and making difficult decisions for the greater good. I thought my experience as a headteacher would be a good grounding for a political career. My only difficulty was how to get started. Could I even consider starting at the bottom and working my way up? No, it would have to be the top job or none. So move over Tony Blair!

As you read this over your cornflakes, Mr Blair might indeed have moved on, but I doubt it. If I am wrong, please stop reading this column now. After eight years in such a powerful position, the question for Mr Blair is: has he stayed too long?

The role of PM is in many ways similar to that of head-teacher. Seven years, we are told, is the optimum time to stay in one job. After that, you become less effective. I have been in post a year longer than Mr Blair and am constantly being asked what I will do next.

Are people trying to tell me something? When you are new to the job, people are easy to please and expectations are high. They forgive your ignorance and accept change. I took the advice given in a pamphlet that advised new heads to act quickly and make the changes they wanted in their first months. As a result, I was able to bring about major change in a short time.

The fact is, the longer you are in post the harder it is to get the job done. In a recent interview, Mr Blair remarked that he is now better equipped for the job of prime minister. He knows what the job entails and all the pitfalls. Yet this in itself can be limiting.

While he now has the knowledge and experience to do the job, he may be less inclined to take risks and follow his instinct. Naivety can be a useful attribute.

As a new head, I expected people to follow me and to do what I wanted. I was not disappointed. I took on a staff who wanted to be led, who eagerly took on new ideas and initiatives, even though it meant working much harder.

Mr Blair had a similar experience. Over recent months I have noticed Mr Blair getting very irate when members of his own party disagree with him, or when he does not get his own way. I know how he feels.

The longer you are in post the harder you have to work to persuade people to do things differently. Other people have their own ideas. They may even disagree with you. When you are used to being in control it is difficult to let go and distribute leadership. However, while it is difficult, it is essential.

No school, or country, can depend entirely on the leadership of one individual. We need to build capacity and make others independent.

Succession planning must be an integral part of our role. I understand why some heads move from school to school, stir things up, clear out underperforming staff and introduce new initiatives and ideas. But why must they move on to the next school before their plans come to fruition?

I know many schools that have been left to pick up the pieces after having a "super head" in their midst for a short period of time. I would have more respect for such individuals if they stuck around to see things through - no matter how difficult that was.

It would have been easier for Mr Blair to have done his eight years, then jumped ship, ready to move on to some other high-profile post. But, although he has made mistakes, I admire his determination to see the job through and hopefully prepare thoroughly for a smooth transition.

Headteachers should do the same.

Kenny Frederick is head of George Green's community school in Tower Hamlets

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