The announcement by Gillian Shephard of a proposed new qualification for headteachers has again raised questions about what society should expect from the holders of these important posts. Some of my best friends are heads. "Ah yes, but would you let your daughter marry one?", someone called out when I said this at a conference.
The demands on heads have escalated in the last few years. Many lament not being able to teach children as often as they used to, or having less time to discuss with staff what is happening in the classroom. As business-type demands have grown, so the time and energy available for other vital matters has eroded.
When teachers show interest in becoming a head, some kindly older hand usually takes them on one side and lets them talk until they get over it, like the Samaritans do. "Thanks for listening to me, Brian, only I was feeling depressed, so I wasn't sure whether to run under a bus and end it all immediately, or apply for a headship and take a bit longer."
The feeling that you have to be daft nowadays even to contemplate becoming a head is not exactly new. Talented though most heads are, there has always been a streak of eccentricity in the pedagogical equivalent of the "Barmy Army". One girls' grammar school headmistress used to close down the school for three days so that everyone, staff and pupils, could make marmalade, which was then sold to raise school funds. It was a brilliant idea. Nowadays she would be made a CBE.
An ex-Navy head believed that the school was his ship, so he baffled staff and pupils with references to "aft" and "cabins". Another engaging nutter rode on his bike up and down the school corridors. Then there was the head who read out long harangues to the staff once a week, oblivious to the fact that most, and on some occasions all, had left the room as soon as he opened his mouth.
Everyone who has worked in more than one school has a tale or two of endearing eccentricity. It has almost been a prerequisite for the job. What concerns me about recent developments, however, is that we are not using as effectively as we should the considerable strengths which good heads can bring to their schools.
By drowning them under brain-corroding bureaucracy, the Government has sidetracked them. The BBC made the same mistake when it announced that radio and television producers would be encouraged to study for a higher degree. But it was not an MA in creative arts, film making or radio they were to take, but rather a Master of Business Administration. Dreary.
So I hope the Government does not make the same mistake with its new qualification for headteachers, the Dip. Head, or Dip.'ead, as it will no doubt be known. The most important duty of heads should be to enhance the quality of teaching and learning in their school. One of the best heads I have ever met was principal of a New York high school with 7,000 pupils. He could have spent all his time on paperwork, or with the police, for the area had a horrendous crime record. Yet almost every day he watched and discussed a lesson with one of the school's 375 teachers. That, he said, was his top priority.
I suspect that the Dip. 'ead will be dominated by bureaucracy, so I have composed the exam paper for the first cohort. Don't laugh. The DFEE is already photocopying it.