Hugh Reilly: Super heads will roll in latest school switch

IS IT a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s super headteacher flying out the school gate. Little more than a decade ago, the concept of a super head who could turn round a failing school caught the imagination of a gullible public.

All hope of saving sink schools lay with privately educated Tony Blair, a man who had witnessed at first hand the horrors of the bog standard comprehensive. On his car journeys to Fettes College, he would pass state school slum-dwellers perambulating the pavements wearing clothing based on Alexander Selkirk’s prêt á porter collection. Gripping his magenta and chocolate coloured school tie, he vowed that should he ever become prime minister of this great land, education, education, education would be his mantra. Just as the words left his lips, unnervingly, a cock crowed.

Classroom teachers who questioned the notion that a single person could transform a school were dismissed as heretics – burning, it seemed, was too good for them. Experienced cynics – and I was one of them – said that the only sure way of raising a school’s results was to move it into a wealthier catchment area; another brick in another wall, if you will. Location, location, location is the deciding factor in a school’s success and now that the idea of a super head is thankfully being abandoned, I’m enjoying my place in the sun.

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Last week, a new report on the Flexible Route to Headship dismissed the theory of an omniscient, inspirational leader who, sporting a natty alchemist’s hat, turns leaden pupils into golden students. Apparently, superman and superwoman headteachers welcomed the findings with the enthusiasm of receiving a kryptonite-sprinkled invitation to Lex Luthor’s birthday bash. According to the research, the most beneficial way forward for education establishments is to empower all teachers to be leaders. The headteacher’s role is to consult with staff to build a consensus on the desired goals and give greater responsibility to teachers to achieve them.

In my experience, new headmasters start off with the best of intentions and say the right things at their first staff meeting: “My door is always open”; “You can count on my support”; “Communication is important to me”. A blissful honeymoon period comes to an end amid the daily grind of dealing with pupil indiscipline, staffroom politics, and the strains of attempting to implement the latest faddish policy. True, the headmaster’s door is always open, but only because he flees his office at the drop of a mortar board to attend important seminars and conferences that offer an escape from the madness of running a comprehensive school. Creating a rapport with teachers by popping into the classroom becomes a thing of the past, and personable means of communication are replaced by the dreaded e-mail.

A downfall for some school managers is to adopt a bunker mentality. Cocooned in the only room on the premises with a carpet and sole-use toilet facilities, the leader would need a sat-nav to find a classroom. From behind his big oak table, he issues diktats and assures council HQ that all is quiet on the educational front. When the directorate discovers that the local press is now referring to the school as Dante’s Inferno Academy, the headmaster is hastily offered an attractive early retirement package, the first step to becoming a highly paid educational consultant.

Maybe I was just unlucky but, over my 30-year teaching career, I don’t recall working for many inspirational headteachers. One was an autocrat, a Mussolini who made the weans run on time but who thought nothing of leaving school early to catch an off-peak train back home. I encountered several who revelled in putting the “con” in consultation. As an EIS rep, I remember my Stalinesque headmaster saying: “Never confuse consultation with control.” Perhaps the most charismatic school leader I met was Peter Mullen. He led by example, prowling the corridors to harangue scamps thrown out of the classroom. He once wandered into my S1 history class and gave an impromptu lesson on the Vikings.

I was fortunate that my last six years of teaching were under the leadership of Jackie Purdie of Bannerman High School. Approachable, honest and positive, she is one of the few headteachers I know who still insist on teaching a timetabled class. But even this super head would be the first to admit the school’s success is due to a combination of many factors.