Headship Anyone?

The latest DfE consideration of a fast track to headship for those identified as ‘bright’ candidates could mean headteachers as young as 26 being responsible for schools.  This is the latest ‘madcap’ idea of Toby Young, he of the ‘free school’ development.  I look back at my first year of headship aged 38, following experience in seven schools, with some embarrassment.  I was saved by a fabulous senior team, David a deputy headteacher of twelve years’ experience and Saira an assistant headteacher, both of whom mollified some of my more ridiculous, naïve announcements and kept me consistent.  Only now, aged 50, do I feel I have a steadfast vision and crucially, the lifetime experience to manage a diverse, complex staff who are under extreme external pressure.  This is not a job for the inexperienced young, no matter how bright they are.

Headship is always complex.  At times it is unrelenting and is not currently a sought after employment.  This is the problem.  We have excellent senior leaders but not the candidates who want to pursue headship.   I believe the reasons for this are that headship has become pigeon-holed in short term stereotypes and glib performance indicators.  You are judged either as a success or a failure, Ofsted rated good or inadequate, a league table success or not and on meeting or missing your challenging, unrealistic performance targets.  A scattergun attack of high pressure and external judgement!  This annual angst means headteachers are very much like football managers who are judged annually, judged at times unfairly and in some cases judged to be expendable.  The reason I took my job was that I projected at interview a hopeful long-term vision, which I and the staff would implement if felt to be correct for our school, our community and our students.  Key aspects of my interview were vertical tutoring, sixth form and student voice which are now an integral part of the school.  Other aspects were later opening times and enrichment vocational Wednesday afternoons, which are as yet still on the optional pile being pondered on.  This has not been a ‘quick-fix’ but twelve years of momentum and built on a platform of hard work and trust.

The skill I feel the governors and senior staff have had in our school is in keeping the faith.  Three years of poor English results, a combination of the marking fiasco of 2014, searching too desperately for a course that suited our students and some teacher complacency were stressful and needed a supportive action plan not a clear out, knee jerk sacking or a ‘scapegoat’ redundancy of anyone at any level.  Would I at 26 have had the ability to lead a key struggling department or would I have made a disastrous hot-headed decision?  Experience is invaluable.  Leading a school or a department cannot be fast tracked by two years of teaching or a course at university, no matter how personable, bright or articulate you are.  Continuing to be a head who teaches gives you kudos and keeps you grounded.  There is nothing more humiliating than being reminded ‘your reports are due in’ or you ‘did not take your register’.  I like teaching and young people quickly point out your failings even if sometimes colleagues are deferential.

My advice to the government would be to identify headteachers who are working in senior teams identified as innovative, collaborative and good.  Try to then match them up with similar schools.  It has always seemed ridiculous to me that for such a key position no interviewing Governor has ever visited my school to assess the credibility and qualities of the deputy aspiring to headship.  Proudly, four of my team have gone onto headship but at times they struggled because their qualities were not right for the type of school they became headteacher of.  David and Saira never went onto headship; both should have and would have been wonderful heads.  David froze at interview and rightly would not compromise his principles.  This one quality would have got him a job if I had been on the panel!  Saira thought the pay was minimal for the hassle, accountability and pressure on your family.  Both were right!  Both should have been identified and used in leading the right school because when it comes together and you can shut the door on the outside it is a fabulously, privileged job – better at 50 than at 38!

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Dance I Say, Dance to your Master’s Rhythm

The influx of reality television programmes has, I believe, created unreal expectations on today’s young people and their schools.  I regularly watch with fascinated despair as invited performers are patronised by billionaire experts. ‘That was amazing, I did not expect that’ can often be translated into ‘you’re ugly but you can sing’ or ‘you’re old and can still dance’.  That this could be a money making opportunity is the underlying message.

My eldest daughter often recalls her experience of trialling for ‘The X-Factor’.  A day spent queuing at Aston Villa, thankfully my wife was on duty, to realise that by 12.00pm, half way through the day, the required ‘good singers’ had been selected and the only acts that would be taken through would be novelty acts.  Her thirty second audition to a ‘bored’ apprentice made her realise that this was not necessarily the business to ‘pin’ your hopes on, reinforced when her amazing singing teacher, the blonde one from Europe’s biggest ABBA tribute act, did not get put through whilst a man with a duck on his head went to the live show.  This was a salutary experience, one as parents we chalked up as a good learning experience in life’s often unfair journey.

However, I have been reminded of this event, by the worrying request for time off school from Gemma’s mum.  Gemma is in year 11 and has been invited to perform at the live event of ‘Britain’s Got Talent’.  Gemma is also on the additional needs register, is a vulnerable level 1 student who is managed closely by our amazing SENCo and her team.  To my and the head of music’s knowledge, her performance portfolio extends no further than ‘singing in her bedroom’.  However, she has some endearing mannerisms, part of her spectrum, something for the judges to smile at and indulge!

My concern, apart from the obvious ridicule that could befall Gemma and how we will manage that inevitable social media commentary, is that these programmes seem to have given unrealistic ‘hope’ to our students.  It is akin to getting the golden ticket or performing outrageous, dangerous stunts on ‘YouTube’ to gain notoriety and celebrity status.  The danger, damage this supposed ‘dream ticket’ allows is a false hope and replacement of the work ethic so required for GCSE.  Gemma is distracted and in a way this is okay, level 1s lead to level 1s in year 12.  For those who are non-academic, hope is in short supply and for Gemma we need to find the right course, the right challenge and not simply get her off the books and unemployment figures.

My son is also in year 11 and it is instructional to see how demanding his GCSE programme is; a two year marathon with excessive demands, some of which are unrealistic from his new subjects. History, his talent, requires 90% to get an A*. GCSE PE is more akin to GCSE biology with four sports tested and evaluated at county standard for A* and RE requires a knowledge of Islam that would shame most politicians.  No wonder some year 11s cannot see the value of all this effort when their exam timetable falls in the middle of Ramadan, is often clearly ill thought out and appears to be arranged only for the benefit of busy examiners not year 11 students who have early humanities heavy exams, often two on the same day, and stories of little success abounding.  He underwent, philosophically, the pressure of his first two exams, RE and global perspectives which were on at the same time; over ten papers of writing with a ten minute silent quarantined break.  Not really a test of his skills but of his endurance.

My annual entreaty to work hard, get qualifications to open doors is met with knowing looks and the stark statistics of no apprenticeships, no nearby vocational courses, cancelled courses and high costs for further education.

The clear message for my working class students and all students is that further education is now only for the middle/upper middle classes and that they need to find another way of making a living.  That is the reality of our three tier system that is giving little hope and the ridiculous message that academic qualifications are the only currency of success.  There is a deep suspicion that this is a flawed system.  My son believes markers of 2000 scripts do not read answers but weigh them.  Look at the annual quantity of remarks for talented students.

Perhaps it is understandable to ‘dream’, even if it is at the expense of your dignity and for the entertainment of some rich mogul!  Who am I to criticise?  We are all dancing to the rhythm and entertainment of the Conservative, out of touch 50 somethings.  It is just that as teachers our dreams have become nightmares of inequality and an unfair system that we are desperately seeking to be successful for Gemma and all our students, examined in a planned, reasonable way.  This is, I believe, something that could and should occur if we do not want to label, ridicule and stigmatise the vulnerable in our society.