June 19, 2024

To Be or Not To Be; Headteacher, Saint or Demigod


When I saw that Donald Trump wants to arm school principals I wondered if this is the solution to our perennial school problems: short skirts, missed homeworks and trainers. It may be that headteachers have a pathological dislike of chewing gum and this could be easily solved if we shot a few kids.

I’m not sure I would trust headteachers to act reasonably faced with such unbearable provocation. I’m not sure I trust headteachers to be reasonable people. And, yes, I can assure you, I will be generalising, except when I give obviously specific examples.

I know of one long serving headteacher who cannot be interrupted whilst speaking. It is accepted at his school that this is so. The drawback here is that we don’t always speak wisely or know what to do. He was surprised during his contribution at a headterachers’ conference when the rest of the audience decided he was dull and started talking amongst themselves. He bellowed an unfunny punchline, laughed at his own humour and sat, red-faced, unused to critical acclaim. At the same time, it was rude of all the heads to demean him. Sometimes we can be insensitive, rude and double-standarded.

Being on X Factor does not mean you’re a good singer and the entire profession should be protected from heads who have been on TV. We may have a misconceived perception of our importance, operating with the clenched fist of truth and self belief in the one true path to success. Only Trump, Putin and Boris know all the answers.

Headteachers should listen to everyone.

At my first school the headteacher, Saul Ezra, was regularly harangued at staff meetings and it was no real surprise when one day he announced that there would be no discussion on a new school rule: “As of today children will walk upstairs on the left hand side and downstairs on the right hand side.” I tried to advise but he was adamant that “enough is enough.” I have never seen a school staff so willingly watch the new school rule – during the 20 minutes it survived the obvious.

I know that some of my colleagues are under pressure to single handedly, “turn schools round’” which is a great-man myth perpetrated by government ministers and the great men (and women) who claim to turn schools from failing to amazing in a year or two. A few expulsions and some revision lessons do not change the nature of a school. Schools need investment in their teachers and a developing ethos based on whole school achievement. I once listened to a headteacher tell how he had turned round four failing schools in ten years. There are no great men (or  women) but he must have been a magician. Great heads can help great teachers improve achievement, working with the students and their parents; it takes time and more commitment than a game of pool.

In a time when new Headteachers are told they have 12 months to bring about system change and improved results and they are then sacked it is a little cruel of me to scorn our tiny corner of the profession. However, I am surprised at some colleagues claiming to have turned round schools that no-one knew were failing in the first place. Just as surprised as hearing almost all job candidates claim the best results in their schools.

I know of a headteacher who issued yellow, and then red, cards to staff who disagreed with her at meetings. She also checked teachers’ marking by lining them all up, then summoning the next one up on to a stage where she sat and checked the books. Teachers with poor marking would be sat in the hall to do it again, properly. This could all take a long time, but she was in charge. She treated her staff like naughty servants. Morale sank under her leadership, student achievement plummeted, the school failed Ofsted – while she literally ate cake- and she was removed from post. Children get one shot at education and we have no right to mess it up, or be allowed to mess it up.

I wonder how many students fail in schools because headteachers do not have the trust of their staff. If we’re not leading people what are we doing? I know of a school where the majority of the staff told Ofsted they had no confidence in the senior team. Strangely the team members decided this was only a vote against the head, who promptly, and under prompting, resigned.

The government cuts our funding every year and this same government has failed its own recruitment targets in each of the last five years. This has dominated our work and disrupted our sleep. Many headteachers are retiring early or just plain giving up trying to recruit teachers who are not alive and trained and balancing budgets that can’t add up. In 3 years over 90% of secondary schools will not be able to balance this budgets, at which point the DfE is charged with ordering us to dismiss teachers.

Back to Saul and I remember how he shuffled papers allowing his deputy and me to be verbally attacked and abused by a group of local politicians who were there to defend a bully. Loyalty has got to be one of the most important personality characteristics in schools – even more so with heads.

The head at my second school didn’t want to appoint me but was overruled by the governors. As I set off for my first Senior Team meeting I was advised not to say anything. I lasted half an hour. One of my suggestions that she liked was to get rid of the uniform description “dark grey” and replace with “black.” It transpired that uniform is a governors responsibility and when they questioned her, the head said, “I don’t know why Dennis thought he could do this.”

Disloyalty rests with the self- centred or the cowardly opportunist. If you can’t trust your headteacher then no-one takes risks and everyone is afraid of failure.

Heads are easy targets for disgruntled students, parents and, sometimes, politicians. I have had three sets of secret HR meetings about me but held in my absence and without my knowledge. In the first one, my headteacher at this school stood up for me, and possibly saved my career, even though she had only known me a few weeks. In the most recent  meeting, convened because a social worker decided there could only be one person in the world with my name, our chair of governors refused to suspend me. I may well have had a slightly controversial career so one need only Google, “Yid Army Schoolboys” for the Daliy Telegraph article on a time when governors were asked to step bravely, and found it difficult to do so.

On this last matter I am obliged to abide by an agreement, the content of which I am not allowed to see. As it’s clearly illegal to hold me to something I can’t see my union advised me to sign the piece of paper that allowed the Director of Education to abrogate his duties. We can fall victim to bureaucrats which is one reason so many of us accepted relative independence as academies. Teachers looking to be heads should beware the insensitivity of  Multi Academy Trusts who sack without second thoughts. Did I mention my lack of admiration for Executive Headteachers already?

If teachers are to teach and children to learn it is compulsory for the head to support the staff and the governors to support the head. This does not mean that anyone should accept and support wrongdoing.

One teacher showed a boy the bin for his chewing gum and mum called the police, saying he’d been smacked in the face. I refused to let the police interview the teacher and it is school policy to expel students making false allegations against staff. Another seriously false claim of assault was loved by the police who did all they could to humiliate the innocent teacher, until the serial false accuser admitted that she made up the story. Headteachers are no longer allowed to suspend staff without strong evidence but we should not need the weight of the 2017 law to stand up for maligned teachers. Headteachers should be loyal and brave.

Headteachers can be the target for abuse by parents and by strangers coming on site at the end of the school day. For 39 years I have confronted  potentially violent strangers and I was critical of a head whose instruction was “staff to staffroom” whenever close of day problems occur. Then one day I bent to help a young man from the gutter and his arm came at me in a perfect arc. Time slowed and I realised I was open to a possibly lethal knife attack. His arm dropped; he swore at me and ran away. I know of a staff in London where they wear stab vests on duty and during our very own Race Riots (or Newham 8 as it is known online)  in 1983, my headteacher told me, “Get them to the school gates and leave it to the police.”  I’m not sure who is right in these situations but I do know that heads need to be courageous in their decision making in all sorts of situations and they should not be tossed around by ambitious politicians in search of publicity and unearned advancement.

Very few headteachers get the sort of reputation of one recent head who parked right next to the exit and his name became synonymous with leaving school on the bell: “Doing a Jonesy.” Headteachers should set an example.

One teacher once told me that there was a major problem with the school: “There’s too much talk about students.” At a time when I wonder what drives Executive Headteachers, and what is it they do I offer this: Our job as leaders is to think big, to leave teachers energised, optimistic and excited by the challenges of educating children. We should not shy away from pursuing our values, sharing and driving our ambition for all kids, particularly those cast astray by a system meddled to near exhaustion.

Personally I think we need to be in school, with an open door and a welcoming inquisitiveness and governors and governments should understand that instinct and experience are sometimes the same thing.

I guess we all have to live by principles – as few as possible so we can sleep at night. The best headteachers, and there are many, follow a moral purpose with dignity, unending optimism, care for their staff and dedication to thriving schools at the centre of their communities.

Being a head is easy – try delivering paraffin and get back to me.

Dennis O’Sullivan

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *