Would you vote in your headteacher?

16th June 2006 at 01:00
Parents, pupils and teachers should be given a say in who is appointed to run their school, says David Halliday

oes it really matter who is on the senior management team is in our schools? Irrespective of who they are, they will have to grapple with the same raft of initiatives and similar problems. As Bismarck stated, "man cannot create the current events. He can only float with them and steer."

Of course, some senior managers can steer better than others and, unfortunately, some end up the creek without a paddle. The Scottish Executive, HMIE, parents, teachers and pupils recognise leadership matters.

How successful that leadership is can have a profound impact on the life opportunities of the children attending the school - and in turn their children. The new headship qualification and the academy for leadership are just two examples of the national determination to improve leadership.

Within the British context, Tony Blair is so concerned about stagnation in some aspects of education, despite some significant investment, that he has thrown open the doors to city academies and faith schools in an attempt to inject competition, diversity and better leadership.

In Scotland, we are walking a different road, wary of embracing these radical reforms. This is understandable as we have areas in Scottish education in which we can be justifiably proud; and we should not delude ourselves that the market, whether in the form of business involvement or vouchers, is the primary solution to the weaknesses in our system.

None the less, it would be fatuous to ignore the fact that stagnation, particularly in leadership, can be a serious problem. To mitigate and address this canker which can frustrate all attempts to make schools ambitious and excellent, we have a number of bodies and initiatives: HMIE, school boards, local authorities, internal monitoring and, most recently, Schools of Ambition and A Curriculum for Excellence.

On their own, these have been and will remain inadequate to ensure the leadership in schools is sufficiently dynamic.

Of course, we have many first-rate leaders in education. But, as in other areas in the public and private sectors, we also have our share of the mediocre and ineffective. The desire of the executive to better prepare individuals for the demanding role of school leader and give parents a greater say in their selection is laudable.

None the less, focusing on who and what the qualities of school leaders should be is of secondary importance. The key question therefore should be: how do we remove failing headteachers? Local authorities have a long history of failure in this area. HMIE may inspect and report but the final judgment needs to be placed firmly in the hands of a trinity of parents, pupils and teachers.

If we want good leadership, we have to give those directly affected the power to remove poor leaders. All headteachers should be appointed for five years. At the end of that time, parents, pupils and teachers would vote to decide whether a headteacher should be offered a further five-year term in office.

This would allow an injection of fresh blood and the removal of those unsuited to the demanding nature of the post, or those who may have made a valuable contribution but are no longer able to do so (although their experience may be invaluable in some other post). In short, we need a more fluid, rotational, leadership structure.

Politicians and educationists sometimes despair at the lack of participation by parents. Giving parents one-third of the votes to endorse or eject the current headteacher would focus their interest. Likewise, if we are serious about citizenship for young people, it is time that we let them vote on something meaningful and not just on the colour of the toilets. What better way to engage young people in the democratic process than to acknowledge that, as the consumers of education, they are in a unique position to judge the effectiveness of school leadership. All those pupils who have experienced two years' education under the headteacher's leadership should be entitled to vote.

Finally, McCrone pushed Scottish education in the right direction by emphasising collegiality. Unfortunately, headteacher patronage can easily create a situation more akin to feudalism - with lord and serfs rather than collegiality. Allowing teachers to participate democratically, to retain or remove their headteacher, would stimulate collegiality and improve teaching and learning. In turn, teachers would be less inclined to whine, aware that power brings responsibility.

By introducing democratic accountability, we may not only engage those with a vested interest in how well the school is led, but we may also take a small step to address the growing crisis of disengagement with politics in this country. It is time to trust ordinary people and let them judge.

David Halliday teaches at Eyemouth High.

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