Hugh Reilly: Parachuted heroes face bumpy landing
AS A lad, I remember purchasing a parachute regiment toy soldier attached to a somewhat flimsy cellophane chute by a few pieces of threadbare string.
Lobbing him into the air resulted in the airborn hero either dangling from a washing line or stuck up a tree. He was lucky. In 1912, projected sales of Franz Reichelt’s revolutionary “aviatory life buoy” had to be quickly recalibrated after he plummeted to his death from the Eiffel Tower sporting the world’s first wearable parachute.
Parachuting is a risky pastime. Indeed, on holiday insurance forms it is one of three life-threatening activities not covered, the others being, of course, bungee-jumping and attempting to hold a same-sex marriage in Stornaway. Nevertheless, the idea of parachuting top headteachers into sink school to narrow the attainment gap between the poorest students and the rest is gaining traction. Last week, education secretary Mike Russell told the Scottish Parliament’s education committee that he was “very open” to the idea.
As far as I know, no-one has bothered to canvass the views of the beleaguered headteachers of ostensibly “not succeeding” schools (“failing schools” sounds so negative, don’t you think?). The de facto duds must stand aside. But the education outcast will take some succour in the magnitude of the Golden Goodbye he negotiates in order to reluctantly pass on the baton, or in his school’s case, baseball bat, of leadership.
The notion that a parachuted superhead can drop in and reinvigorate staff is an insult to the sterling efforts of teachers operating in these difficult environments. I admit I’m speculating, but my best guess is that rectors in magnet schools may be a tad reluctant to take up a leadership position in a “challenging” school serving a peripheral housing estate; after all, that opportunity has always existed and, by and large, resisted. However, rather than stand quivering at the plane’s exit door, our most successful headmasters should cheerily shout “Geronimo!”, feel the fear and just do it. The intrepid pioneers would benefit from the new headmaster “bounce”, whereby the recently appointed rector revels in his role of school Redeemer.
During this inevitably short-lived hagiocracy, the importance of image over substance cannot be underestimated. The introduction of a compulsory school uniform gives the impression to a gullible public that He is making a huge difference; only the demoralised chalkies are aware that the sartorial edict has merely led to a better dressed class of yahoo. Exclusion figures are massaged; the number of suspended kids tumbles as a new regime of on-site detention and giving pupils stern warnings takes root. The PR ruse is complete when the local newspaper comes calling to report on how the superheadteacher has transformed lives. Modestly, he claims it is a team effort as he sits in his bespoke swivel chair practising his pose for the camera. An MBE for services to education surely beckons.
To be fair, there is compelling, objective evidence that a superhead can singlehandedly turn a sink school into a beacon of excellence. Lenny Henry managed it in the BBC drama Hope and Glory, as did the rather sexy headmistress in the first series of Waterloo Road (my voluntary transfer request to that education establishment was unfortunately denied). Sadly, cynics exist who point out that when a headmaster vacancy arises in a failing school, the number of applicants makes a Mubarak-era presidential election ballot paper seem crowded. Ambitious deputy headteachers working in leafy, suburban schools realise that securing a headmaster post in a school serving a deprived area is often a cue for career suicide. When examination league tables are published, instead of basking in above national average attainment levels, the rector will be endeavouring to justify his pupils’ academic achievements. It’s a well-rehearsed script – poverty, dysfunctional families, drink and drug addiction, blah, blah – best delivered with a pained-social-worker expression and hands set to maximum wring.
A tried and tested distraction technique for the shame-faced rector is to earnestly spout guff about “added value”, the school’s outstanding participation in the Duke of Edinburgh scheme and the high percentage of his young people who have found employment in the hospitality industry.
The plan to parachute headteachers into underperforming schools is in for a bumpy landing.
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Wednesday 19 June 2013
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