Why no one wants to climb the greasy pole

22nd August 2008 at 01:00

Appropriately, the precipitous fall of candidates applying for headteacher jobs in Scotland was the lead story in The TESS, August 1. All kinds of people from politicians to researchers are calling for action to address the problem. Could it be that the various discussions are missing the point?

In secondary schools, the hierarchal structures have changed little. The McCrone reorganisation brought chartered teachers and job-sizing, but the basic journey to the top remains unchanged. Everyone starts off as a classroom teacher, with the promotion route being principal teacher, deputy head and then head. Fiona Hyslop has called in experts from various universities to analyse why so many teachers baulk at the thought of being a head. Surely she should be asking teachers in schools rather than academics.

Recruiting headteachers is a problem. I meet many first-class principal teachers, and the majority have no intention of going beyond that point. Potential candidates are hardly wilfully AWOL as is the implication from the Government. The reasons for not applying are justified: as soon as you join the higher echelons of senior management, hands-on classroom teaching can no longer be the hub of your remit within a school.

While you may continue to have a few teaching periods, the nature of your new job means you have to deal with issues which tend to be external to the delivery of the curriculum. Many teachers who have spent years changing and adapting their style do not want to trade that very satisfying process for what might turn out to be a poisoned chalice. Maybe because we are constantly working on our classroom strategies in ways that were not demanded in the past, we value the time and effort it takes to develop into excellent teachers to give it up.

What has not been properly examined, and maybe Ms Hyslop needs to be much more radical in her approach, is what senior management teams actually do. Most people would agree that there are areas of the job which don't need to be carried out by teachers. For instance, looking after the maintenance of a building. This could be carried out by a mortal other than a teacher.

Problems have been identified by Greg Dempster, general secretary of the Association of Headteachers and Deputes in Scotland. Increasing accountability is a major factor in deterring would-be candidates. Parental rights are paramount, with authorities nearly always cowtowing to parents (because they fear negative publicity) at the expense of their headteachers.

I know of heads who have been unjustly rapped over the knuckles by their bosses - for instance, for asking a non-achieving senior pupil to leave. This puts off good candidates which means, inevitably, that sometimes inadequate candidates are appointed to these promoted positions.

Am I too pessimistic? I don't want to climb the greasy pole, because I'd miss the satisfaction of the achievements and development of my subjects in the classroom. We need a complete overhaul of the archaic promotion structure in Scottish secondaries.

Marj Adams, teaches religious studies, philosophy and psychology at Forres Academy.

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