Alright, I can’t help it. I wasn’t going to, and I have been staying resolutely quiet and off social media with it all but I’m too involved. I am a teacher, and a writer and a blogger and someone who has taught in the state sector, the private sector, failing schools and successful schools, schools with a poor demographic and schools with an affluent one. And (1) I have kids in school and my husband is a senior manager in a school. So, honestly, I don’t want to upset anyone, or get into professional, awkward situations or even cause any arguments but it is kind of inevitable that I might have something to say. Education, and the Election. There. I’ve said it. Only about five people will read it anyway, so that’s alright.
Teaching is a great job: its essential elements haven’t changed much in the twenty years I’ve been doing it, and it is still, at its heart, a stimulating, rewarding, varied and interesting career. It is perfect for those of us who love our subjects, but can’t quite breathe in the rarefied air of higher level Academia, with its lack of interaction and activity. So don’t let me put you off, if you were thinking about it. It’s just that politicians come and go, and like to leave their mark on us- but so often do not really understand the world with which they meddle.
Incidentally, whilst writing I found myself using so many parentheses that they became distracting rather than ‘quirky’ as I was hoping, so I’ve popped them all at the bottom of the page.
Let’s start with Leadership- and I’m mostly talking about state school Head Teachers: I’m not sure how things are in the private sector. At my current independent school(2) there is a PA team, a Marketing team, a PR team and an Admissions team so things seem to be going OK there. Public Sector cuts not an issue.
So, Head Teachers in state funded schools then: the most recent statistic is that there was a 32% annual turnover of Head Teachers in secondary schools during 2013/14. 12% of schools lost their business manager. Now, if you happen to be a big shot in the City, I can well imagine that you may be shaking your head, wondering why such incompetent idiots, who can’t add up or withstand pressure are appointed and thinking that you could do it better: you might even be idly looking up the leadership salary scale and wondering if it’s worth jacking it all in to go and rescue your kids’ school.(3) Imagine the kudos! But bear with me whilst I meander through a few other factors than over-promotion and incompetence. And if your kid’s Head Teacher has been in post more than four years, give them a pat on the back, or send them doughnuts on Monday morning.
A Head Teacher who takes over a school, particularly one that is ‘failing’ or ‘requires improvement’ has to demonstrate ‘improvement’ in quantifiable terms before the Academic year is out, and certainly over the next Academic few years. This improvement is quantified in terms of exam results and pupil progess. ‘So what’?- I hear you all ask, at your dinner parties, when the last course has been supped, and so has most of the wine. ‘So what? I have to perform and show results in my Big City Job or I too will be sacked.’ ‘Yes, yes,’ I reply, pouring myself some coffee in an attempt to explain myself properly without spoiling it by slurring. ‘Yes, I understand that you Big City people have high pressure, high performing jobs. And we like our schools to be accountable too. But there are some differences.’
The first difference is that instead of the relatively predictable commodity of money to manage (although an HT obviously has to manage that as well), he or she is managing the most unpredictable variable on the earth: children. About 200 of them. They are unpredictable because, at any given moment in time they are experiencing something for the FIRST TIME and that makes them both weird and wonderful. So when you make your staff run intervention clinics for your C/D borderlines, confident that this will definitely add value to your product, or, at least, get you some marginal gains, it’s really hard to counter the fact that product X is spending their entire time out of school sat in a darkened room because their boyfriend called them fat and is now going out with their best mate. Or maybe it is their first encounter with grief. Or perhaps they have had a relapse of an eating disorder. Or they might be a Young Carer, whose mother has relapsed but doesn’t want to go into social care. Times that by 200 of these young people who are all experiencing virtually everything for the FIRST TIME and perhaps not getting the best of support at home, and you can see that there is an inherent level of challenge perhaps not present in when managing fiscal commodities. But under Cameron’s government, if you do not immediately meet this challenge the vultures will finish their circling and swoop, chanting FAILING FAILING FAILING until your ears bleed and you have to announce a personal crisis and quietly disappear. (That seems to be how it is done…) In short, all of society’s failings will be laid and your feet and you will have to pick them up and carry them on your back, claiming them as your own.
Moving on, the second difference is that you also have approximately 100 staff members for whom you are personally responsible. You are responsible for their well being, but also their results and there is an uneasy tension existing between the two. If Mrs Y’s results are a bit dodgy this year because her husband died following a long illness, for which she was his sole carer and financial support then that is YOUR FAULT that the futures of thirty children have been laid to waste and you might find you need to sack her to show that you have a grip on the situation. (or convince her that she must announce a personal crisis and disappear.) And when you need to replace Mrs Y, it will be tricky because she’s a maths teacher, and anyone with a good maths degree seems to prefer to be extraordinarily well paid in the City. So you hire what you can, and provide support and training, knowing that ultimately it is your fault if they can’t succeed. There might be Big City jobs where you are personally responsible for three hundred individual human lives, but I can’t think what they are. Doctors and pilots come the closest, I guess.
Last up is the financial element. Taking over a Headship might turn out to be the equivalent of inheriting the Treasury to find that hilarious document ‘I’m afraid there is no money.’ Whatever you try and do to fix the situation, it must not require any money. If you have taken over a school that has just begun the process of Academization then you will have a bit more money thrown at you, and a bit more leeway to spend it as you wish, but as soon as you become more successful this will stop. I am about to start work in a lovely school from September, but even I was a bit thrown by the extent of the joy the school officer exhibited upon finding an unfranked stamp that could be reused. It also accounts for the school I worked at that had one staff toilet in a building of approximately thirty staff members. The toilet was directly off a heavily used pupil corridor, with no outer cloakroom and the thin door opened directly opposite a science classroom. One had to contend with gleefully shouted comments through the door like ‘Is it taking a long time to come out, Miss?’ or as you exited, ‘Phoar! Miss! Open a window!’ You had to laugh. ‘Could we possibly have another toilet in the building?’ “I’m afraid there is no money.” So, Mr or Ms Apple, Sky, MicroSoft, Google, Bank of Scotland, Price WaterHouse Cooper, Prudential…. How would you like that? Although, as the Head Teacher, you would probably get to sit on a much quieter, cleaner more refined toilet but you would be directly responsible for denying one to your staff…or giving them one and taking money away from the pupils. I guess another a toilet suite might cost the same as the classroom assistant you just hired.
So, those are the main three reasons why a Head Teacher’s job is not directly comparable with someone managing Hedge Funds, or fiscal accounts (whatever they are) or juggling property deals. It’s also not the same as overseeing teams of people who are drawing up divorce settlements or auditing businesses. It’s just not.
But what is the result of all this pressure to perform, and financial nothingness? Well, first off it can sometimes,sadly, breed a culture of bullying. Yes, I know that bullying may well be accepted and endemic in your Big City macho culture Job, but it has no place in schools, either amongst the pupils or the staff. A Head Teacher who is put under massive pressure to pull virtually impossible results out of the bag can easily stop caring about anything else. Children are their products, results are their gross earnings and value added is their profit margin. If your staff just work a bit harder, give up a few more evenings and weekends run a few more clinics, see a few more kids at lunch times and after school and be available via email seven days a week round the clock, then you might just pull it off. If that NQT on £22,000 would just stop having a boyfriend and devote her weekend to her job and her marking, then that might help. Makes me wince to think how easily this could happen to a person under pressure.
Another result is Compassion Deficit. When you are under huge amounts of financial and performance pressure, all you will think about is the inconvenience of someone’s terrible circumstance. You might face a member of staff across your big Head Teacher’s desk while they are asking for time off to attend their mother’s funeral, and you might actually wonder if you should ask why they couldn’t have kept the body cold for long enough for it to be the in Easter holiday. Otherwise you will have to pay for supply, or increase the cover allocation to a staff, who already have no time to dash to that poky little toilet on the science corridor. When I explained to a Head Teacher that I would be delighted to accept a promotion to Head of Department, but that I ought to alert her to the fact that I had a date for a surgical procedure to rid me of my chronic tonsillitis, she responded simply: “ I’d love to tell you that you can’t have that time off, but if I did I suppose you’d only cost me more in sick days in the long term.” You can’t argue with that logic but I did feel she had been visited by a Dementor, who had sucked out her soul.
Do you want your child to be immersed in a culture like that? I thought not, Mr or Ms Big City Job because you may be ruthless and lacking in mercy at your Big City Job, but your child is to you like a precious piece of fragile china. They are obviously special and that is why you will probably be sending them to a private school anyway. There goes a whole demographic, who have educated, professional parents and will have your total support and do well academically. Imagine the difference if the students and parents of your children’s Independent school all turned up at the doors of your closest State funded school. What a PTA that would be! Chicken and egg, anyone?
And the final result of pressure on Head Teachers to improve results within a ridiculously short time frame, on a tight budget because of cuts, all in the circling eye line of the Dementor-infested sky-line of Ofsted, who will suck out your soul is that NO ONE WANTS TO BE ONE. Few (and I won’t say none. Because there are always exceptional people) Senior Leaders in a school can be convinced to sacrifice their job security and stability in order to take on a job where you will be shuffled along for a billion different possible factors that are out of your control. Family men and women? Too risky. Young, ambitious and fast-tracked? Where will you go after that? And what will happen to your cool social life? Who does that leave? Chancers, and a very few amazing, exceptional individuals- thank goodness!
And if you still need convincing, here is the history of my own Head Teachers:
No.1: Left to teach in a private school in the Far East.
No2: Had a nervous breakdown/mysterious illness and left.
No3: Disappeared with no word to the staff.
No4: Left ‘for personal reasons’ after a ‘vote of no confidence’ from staff: Government changes had set up a sadly irresolvable tension.
No5: Still in situ but having to endure an ‘executive headship’ from an Academy chain drafted in to rescue things.
No.6 Still in situ. (private school.)
A Deputy Head I know, who shall remain nameless, went to visit a school recently with a view to interview for a Headship. Whilst there, and chatting to staff he discovered that an old colleague, and excellent, well respected Deputy Head had been ‘moved on’ from his Headship because he didn’t pull the required results out of the bag quickly enough. The same had happened to another colleague, who had managed to secure another position. In his current role, he frequently receives applications for ordinary teaching or middle management positions from ex-Head Teachers, who have been ‘moved on’ and are too young to retire and need to support a family. The current head and deputy of that school had also disappeared under mysterious circumstances and that was why the position was vacant. This school visit was followed by news of the ‘moving on’ of the successful applicant to job he nearly got just a couple of years ago.
What can we deduce from these Head Teacher obituaries? Should we infer that all these good people, who had outstanding track records up until the time of their employment as Head Teachers are incompetent? Should they be forced into academization, made to reapply for their own jobs and eventually ‘moved on?’ Or should we perhaps examine the system a little more carefully and try to work out why that system is, in fact, the one that is Incompetent. What do you think?
The deputy head teacher, who shall remain nameless, is not going to go ahead and apply for the job.
(1) I have played fast and loose with the conjunction ‘and’ here, of which I have had a lively debate on social media. However I have also avoided ending that last sentence with a preposition, so it cancels it out.
(2) about which I have little educational criticism apart from to say it is a shame I can’t afford to send my own daughter there- and following on from that, that it is a shame the word ‘afford’ needs to be attached to any educational scenario.
(3) (as a guide, a Head Teacher of a very large secondary academy in inner London might just about make six figures, but remember that there is no expense account business, or writing anything off to tax- possibly a tiny bit of salary sacrifice child care. Most Head Teachers will earn £70,000- £80,000. You can say goodbye to your evenings and weekends, and the perks of the holidays are definitely just for your staff. A Head Teacher of a primary school might earn £60,000 in inner London, but most will earn less. You do sometimes hear about ‘Super Heads’ earning preposterous money, but I don’t know much about them. They are normally overseeing several different schools, and offering consultancy. Frankly, until politicians stop acquiring and furnishing unnecessary second homes with our money, I think they should keep quiet about teacher salaries.
(4)(I do seem to recall the toilets for visitors, outside the Head’s Office being rather nicer, but they were a two minute walk away, which is a long time when you are dashing to the loo between lessons. And this particular school has had an Academization rebuild, so I’m really hoping that the English staff are able to have an unharrassed loo visit. If there was anything I wished for them when I left, more than students who would actually sit down for a whole lesson, it was that.)
Other interesting, and, I daresay, more authoritative articles on this issue: