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They know we know who's boss

Are you really our headteacher's boss?" whispered the little Year 6 girl, so quietly I had to bend down and ask her to say it again.

So here is the question of the week for all TES readers. What should I have replied? What I did reply - "Well . . . not really . . ." - was, I fully acknowledge, wholly inadequate and I am ashamed of it. But how to explain the relationship to a 10-year-old on a brief classroom visit?

I could guess what had happened. At assembly that morning the head had said something like: "And this afternoon the chief education officer - or the director of education and community services as she is known these days - is coming to visit. So please give her a really good impression of the school - after all, she's my boss!" I imagine this raising something of a laugh. Most children probably find it difficult to think of anyone being their headteacher's boss. Certainly this thoughtful-looking child didn't find the idea credible at all and was determined to challenge it, even though she had to conquer her natural shyness to do so.

(This particular head, by the way, is one who likes to greet me with "hello boss!" when we meet at functions around the borough. He says it with a breezy cordiality which doesn't quite manage to hide an ironic glint in the eye. He knows, and I know, and he knows that I know, that if I tried any bossing as far as he is concerned I wouldn't get very far.) It is a commonplace to attribute this ambiguous relationship to the 1988 Education Act and the advent of local management and grant-maintained schools. I think that it predated this watershed legislation. Many - perhaps most - chief education officers tended to handle headteachers with kid gloves and cede them a fair amount of autonomy, even in the bad old days when CEOs felt powerful.

Unlike their counterparts in most other countries, English headteachers were never regarded as mere local government functionaries within a straight hierarchy. The existence of governing bodies made sure of that. Indeed we need constantly to remind ourselves that the constitutional structure for the most decentralised system of school management in the world (our own) was created 50 years ago. We had that long to get used to the idea before it became a reality.

This position has always been an anomaly in local government. In other services - planning, social services, leisure - the line management structure is straightforward. The different situation in education has been a long-standing irritant even in authorities that have been multi-purpose for the past half-century. It is much worse than an irritant in situations where responsibility for education transfers to a local authority that has not historically had it.

This has been the experience of the inner London boroughs, and will be the experience of the new unitary authorities. When my own authority, Tower Hamlets, took over responsibility for education from the Inner London Education Authority in 1990 I used to get memos from other departments complaining about the high-handed, insubordinate and unco-operative behaviour of "your staff" - "Your staff have failed to attend the meeting on . . ."; "Your staff are not carrying out council procedure in relation to . . ."; "I trust you will initiate disciplinary proceedings in relation to your staff's failure to . . .".

At first I was appalled and embarrassed, assuming that it was members of the education department who were being accused of behaving in this uncorporate manner. It soon became obvious, however, that in most cases the staff referred to were headteachers who had decided - rightly, in most cases - that various council circulars that arrived on their desks had nothing to do with them.

As I say, this different relationship pre-dated the 1988 Act. But there is no doubt that local management and the grant-maintained option have hugely increased the difference. Headteachers, though legally employees of the LEA, can defy and ultimately walk away from their employers while still retaining their jobs.

In the world of employment practices, this spells anarchy. In the real world of important relationships it is normal for our times. By becoming voluntary, the chief education officer-headteacher connection joins a long list of traditional relationships (for example marriage, parenthood, the family, church and trade union membership), which will enter the 21st century with this new, precarious status.

Perhaps where the relationship between CEOs and heads is different from these others is that both sides are bound by a highly prescriptive set of legal obligations. We are - both of us - scrambling to fulfil statutory requirements. Not to break the law (in relation to the national curriculum and health and safety, for example, to name but two areas) can all too easily become a full-time activity in which schools can feel highly vulnerable and in need of support. While this undoubtedly damages creativity, it is excellent for bonding.

The institution of marriage is now far more lightly controlled by law than the institutional arrangements for education. A cynic might speculate that this is the reason why the divorce rate is so much higher than the opting-out rate.

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