You can't please all the people all the time'

30th September 2005 at 01:00
I remember a sunny day in June, one I had set aside for working on various returns to avoid receiving a volley of compliance instruction notices from on high. I could hear pupils practising outside for sports day and envied them their time in the sun, while I was inside.

"Sod it,"I thought. "I was here for 13 hours yesterday for a board meeting and I'll be here tomorrow until 8pm for the Primary 1 parents' induction meeting, so I'm out of here on the bell today. With luck, I might make it out half an hour after the early stages teachers."

Not a chance. There are too many people who have no intention of applying the concept of work-life balance to a headteacher's job. If I ever try to do a runner, a string of folk appears with issues ranging from the trivial to the downright ridiculous.

A few years ago, on one of our rounds of self-evaluation, I had feedback from staff via an audit of management, leadership and quality assurance. I did not score highly on availability and beat myself up over it. So, like Boxer in Animal Farm, I came to the conclusion that the fault was mine and I must work harder.

I dragged myself out of bed half an hour earlier and my working day grew in proportion to the diminishing prospect of keeping within the European agreement. After several months, I realised that I was getting through no more work, but my patience was used up before the first bell went.

I was saved by a sympathetic informer who tipped me that it was not so much that I had been unavailable to staff, but that I had been unavailable at times which suited some of them. I reset my alarm clock.

I have ceased to be surprised at the number of calls I answer when I come into school during the holidays. There is obviously a belief that the head is semi-resident, on hand if the thought of getting in touch should cross one's mind. This year I received an "invitation" from the authority in the last week of the holidays to a meeting about single status, for which I was unavailable.

Some days the school office reception area feels like an old-fashioned doctor's waiting room, with the queue building from 8am and moving forward on the shout of "Next!" How often have you had someone drop in at lunchtime, oblivious to your half-eaten sandwich in one hand and the telephone in the other, and ask, "Are you busy?" How often have you replied, "Yes, I am."?

I considered leaving the building at lunchtime, just to be out of reach for a while, but I had to face up to a rather hard question. Where would I go? To the mall for a stroll around the shops while being sneeringly ignored by former pupils? To the beach or a park, with the journey across town taking up all my time and hiking up my stress levels? A walk around Dyce was ruled out: I might have to stop and make polite conversation to the very people I was trying to avoid.

Such a peregrination would also mean that I would still have an hour's work to do at what used to be the end of each day, which would definitely be at odds with my work-life balance objectives.

So, I have settled for a more pragmatic approach to dealing with the expectation of my constant and instant availability to the world at large.

I will replace the "Do not disturb" sign on my door with one that reads "I can only please one person a day. Today is not your day. Tomorrow doesn't look good either."

Joan Fenton is headteacher of Dyce Primary in AberdeenIf you have any comments, email

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