Hugh Reilly: Take headteachers … please, just take them

Hugh Reilly. Picture: Robert Perry
Hugh Reilly. Picture: Robert Perry
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LAST weekend’s news that Edinburgh City Council has spent £40,000 this year putting 32 school leaders through a residential course forced the faux-outrage-ometer to fly off the scale.

An apoplectic Iain Whyte, finance spokesman for the Conservative opposition on the council, spouted it was “a very expensive way to enhance leadership”. Columba 2014, the charity running the event, would disagree, arguing that the next cheque from Edinburgh council – £130,000 for enriching the skills of a further 104 headmasters – represents value for money. Certainly, the local authority’s largesse helps to fill in the black hole caused a few years ago when the charity lost its Holyrood funding. Perhaps Edinburgh council should be applauded for its unique model of wealth redistribution.

Spending taxpayers’ money on state employees has never been popular. If Emperor Commodus had sent his coliseum corpse retrieval staff on a dead-body-handling technique course, the Roman mob would have crucified him. Even in the boom years of Blair and Brown, shocking stories of council workers receiving a fringe benefit caused a Mexican wave of discord in the country’s middle class.

Part of the problem is that the terminology used can be a tad pejorative. If a local authority is picking up the tab, it is invariably labelled a “junket”, that is, an extravagant celebration enjoyed at the expense of the public purse. However, if a private firm organises a day out for senior management and their friends at Musselburgh race course, it’s termed a corporate event. When a company sets up a weekend away at an exclusive spa for suppliers and their spouses, it’s a networking experience. Likewise, a weekend’s golfing for senior executives is a team-bonding exercise. I know this because some of my mates are company directors. When I was a teacher, it seriously teed me off when they complained about my in-service “jollies”. Relating the reality of a teaching freebie failed to cool their ardour. They refused to believe that elevenses consisted of rolls filled with pub coasters masquerading as square sausages and polystyrene cups of coffee that would have caused a riot at Barlinnie. Accustomed to relaxing in swivelling, cushioned chairs, my business pals found it incredible that a professional would be forced to sit in a bum-numbing plastic seat with “Fleeto ya bass!” graffitied on to it. Treating teachers in such a manner deserved public disapprobation; instead, rectors who organised these “jamborees” received Investors in People Awards.

To be fair, it would somewhat remiss of me not to point out that some enlightened headmasters did dip into the school budget and provide a high quality environment for some of their hard-working staff. At one south side Glasgow school that I had the honour of being asked to leave, the comp’s senior management squad and principal teachers discussed the implications of implementing Higher Still in the salubrious surroundings of a hotel. By way of contrast, those who would actually deliver the policy, the chalkies, were tasered into the cold assembly hall to be hectored for three hours by a crazed man armed with a PowerPoint presentation and a laser pen.

In my experience, headmasters returning from costly school leadership courses rarely made any lasting changes. In the bubble of the residential course, surrounded by like-minded individuals who praised every allegedly positive idea put forward by this month’s education Messiah, they thought they alone could transform their fiefdoms. How bizarre! Classroom teachers may be small cogs but without their goodwill, education’s wheel does not turn.

Happy-clappy leadership courses gave schools brain-gyms, an initiative whose worth has been debunked by neurological experts. Thanks to many valueless courses, school walls are festooned with Christmas motto-type musings. “It’s not how you fall, it’s how you get up,” is one that sticks in my mind, probably because it was placed at the top of a flight of stairs.

Edinburgh taxpayers may question the worth of stumping up a total of £170,000 to instil greater leadership qualities in the city’s headteachers. However, for classroom teachers who must endeavour to persevere without their helmsmen for four days, it seems a small price to pay.