Trouble at the top

9th October 2015 at 00:00

Few would say it is easy to be a headteacher these days, so it’s hardly surprising that there’s a shortage of people who want to lead schools.

The volume of paperwork and bureaucracy can be overwhelming, and even young children can be exceptionally challenging. Which makes me worry about the quality of people we do eventually turn into headteachers. I’ve heard some very concerning tales lately – only a handful, but still…

A friend who was moving to Kent spent a day looking at prospective primary schools for his son. He made an appointment for a tour at a school close to their new home. The first thing he noticed as he walked into the building was that nobody was smiling. Even the children were unnaturally quiet.

After keeping him waiting for half an hour, the headteacher took him to a key stage 2 classroom, where he said: “Right, stand up all the level 4s.” Assuming that the headteacher’s next request might be “Stand up all the gifted and talented children”, my friend beat a hasty retreat. Did the headteacher really believe this was the mark of a good school? I wonder how the poor souls who were “only level 3s” felt. Failures, presumably, like the children all those years ago who didn’t pass the 11-plus.

It’s often this kind of head who puts extreme pressure on staff. My neighbour has a friend who is a newly qualified teacher. She struggled through her first year, doing nowhere near as much teaching as she wanted, because the demand for form-filling in her school was extortionate. Every evening was spent constructing minutely detailed lesson plans to appease a paper-hungry senior management team. She was worn out by it.

As the end of the summer term approached and practice Sats were completed and marked, she thought the pressure might ease. But the children were all required to write three detailed personal “targets” that they thought they might achieve when they moved on to secondary. Sadly, this teacher is already beginning to have doubts about the profession she so desperately wanted to be a part of.

Shortly before I retired, I attended a one-day headteacher recruitment conference. People from the now defunct National College for School Leadership had come along for an open discussion with local headteachers and governing body members. One head said candidly that he didn’t believe it was part of a headteacher’s role to have contact with children or go into classrooms, other than to monitor teaching staff. There was far too much admin to do. He saw himself, he said, more as a business manager.

I found that astonishing. All these headteachers must have been classroom teachers at one time, I thought. Did they not enjoy it? And if not, why did they do it? Were they biding their time until they could get into an office and order people about? If they weren’t much good in the classroom, how did they ever become headteachers? It doesn’t say much for quality control.

It’s often said that a great teacher is born, not made. Perhaps that’s true of our headteachers, too.

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