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When headteachers disappear into the night

Last week I attended the retirement party for a popular primary head. She'd been there for 12 years, steering the school through good days and bad, so there was plenty to celebrate. Ex-pupils shared their memories in a special assembly and the staff and governors clubbed together to buy her a balloon ride as a leaving present.

It was a very happy occasion and a remarkable one too because few headteachers get this kind of send-off any more. It's rare to make it through to the statutory age for retirement and a lot retire injured before their time is up.

In this particular cluster two were off with stress-related illnesses, one had been suspended and another hadn't been seen since the last Office for Standards in Education inspection. And this wasn't some inner-city battleground. These were feeder primaries for a well-regarded comprehensive in a West Country market town.

It's a grim way to end a teaching career and one of the saddest aspects is that there's no chance to say goodbye. One day the head is in charge, holding assemblies and coping with the latest targets and the next he or she is out clutching a bottle of pills or a pot plant. Are they coming back? Nobody knows, so the question of a farewell do is shelved and by the time the dust settles, two or three terms down the line, it's too late.

Primary schools are good at celebrating achievement and yet this common pattern means that many fine headteachers leave the profession with no acknowledgement of their years of service and their many triumphs. Tested to destruction, they see 30 years of successful teaching overshadowed by a final failure and creep away to lick their wounds. There's no party, no speeches, no presentation. Parents, pupils and teachers are deprived of the opportunity to say a thank-you for everything that has been done over those years. And this is not just an occasional problem. It's happening all the time. So what's the solution?

The days of Goodbye Mr Chips are gone and many retiring heads take a lot of baggage with them, emotional as well as physical. A school-based affair may not always be appropriate, but achievement should be marked and this is where the local education authority could play a part. There's a whole raft of systems in place for monitoring the competence of our school leaders but it seems as if, when their usefulness is over, they just drop off the edge.

In other organisations it is routine to mark the departure of a long-serving employee with a speech by senior management thanking them for their services and making some kind of presentation. It's a matter of corporate good manners. But too many headteachers disappear into the night with nothing but a P45 and retirement pack and it's not good enough.

What's needed is a human resources strategy, written into the LEA five-year plan with attainment targets and a robust monitoring structure to ensure that every head gets a proper send-off. Or just a little imagination.

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