You have to be cruel to be kind

9th July 2004 at 01:00
Heads need the tough love of their governors, says David Sassoon.

The teacher workload agreement is gathering a head of steam, thanks to extra government funding to encourage local education authorities to translate national aspirations into good practice.

The cash given to pathfinder schools is encouraging schools to think the previously unthinkable and the lead from the national remodelling team at the National College for School Leadership is proving invaluable in disseminating pioneering ideas, some of which have few cost implications.

In the nature of how schools work, headteachers are taking the lead in:

* ensuring that teachers cease routinely doing the 25 administrative tasks identified in the remodelling team's research

* providing time for managers to manage

* ensuring that no teacher covers for absent colleagues for more than 38 hours annually

* and ultimately making available 10 per cent non-contact time for all teachers.

But who is looking after the heads? Governors ignore their welfare at their peril. In securing a work-life balance for their staff, many headteachers are in danger of driving themselves into the ground. It is up to governors to offer them tender, loving care, not of a soppy kind, but well thought out. For example, governors could hold their meetings either at the start of a working day or immediately after the school day ends. I am not advocating that all meetings be held at such times - just some, so that heads can go home at a reasonable hour.

Many governing bodies still rely on their heads to draft the reports for the annual parents' meetings, a practice that should really cease. It is true that much of the information that is required for such reports is contained within the schools. However, actually writing the reports should be the responsibility of nominated governors. Governors need to consider reducing the amount of paperwork required of their heads. A termly report to the governing body is an essential. However, drafting policies and carrying out parental and pupil surveys should be doled out to governors (perhaps even teacher and staff governors) to create space and time for headteachers.

Heads are often their own worst enemies. Some care so deeply for their schools that they find it difficult to let go. For the best reasons, they want to exert maximum control over everything and everybody all the time - because they fear that if they did not do so, matters would fall apart.

They understand with their heads, but not their hearts, that no one is indispensable.

The word "delegation" does not exist in their emotional lexicons. Here is where governors, particularly the chairs of governors, can come into their own and demonstrate the harder side of TLC. Governors can become true critical friends by informing their headteachers in no uncertain terms that the ways in which they operate are unacceptable, that in not looking after themselves, they are physically unable to look after others and their schools.

I expect that some heads will provide fierce resistance to the idea of delegating and dumping work that need not have their personal attention.

The arguments for retaining duties will be convincing. "I must have an open-door policy, where everyone - especially the children - should feel welcome in my office," is often used. However, an open-door policy should not mean ceaseless round-the-clock availability. Where this exists, no meaningful work can be done. Some heads are adept at carrying out certain functions, such as crisis management, arranging cover duty, dealing with child protection matters and even teaching. They cling on to them as a limpet to a rock. They do so because they enjoy them. Governors, in their role of forcing their heads to take new perspectives in leadership and management, will need to be ruthless with such headteachers and ask them why they do not delegate such tasks.

This is not going to be easy, but it is well worth trying. Remodelling the teaching - including the headteaching - workforce must not result in headteachers who are unable to see the wood for the trees and lose out on the work-life balance.

David Sassoon is an Ofsted-trained inspector and an educational consultant supporting many school governing bodies

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