July 2015

The know zone

  • Sixth sense
    As timetables are tweaked in readiness for the new sixth-form provision in September, schools and colleges should ensure that their 16-19 study programmes will meet tight new financial and curriculum standards, says Kevin Gilmartin. More
  • Know your numbers
    Pay progression data can reveal hidden – possibly discriminatory – trends, so it is vital to study it carefully, says Sara Ford. More
  • Making allowances?
    Pay rises could push you over the tax relief limit and into trouble with HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) so check your position, warns Stephen Casey. More
  • Experience counts
    Devising your school or college’s continuing professional development (CPD) programme can seem a daunting prospect. Do you plan for your own staff to deliver, invite a facilitator in to do the work or send staff out on external courses? What are the pros and cons of each approach and which provides the best value for money? More
  • A tidal change
    The Royal Merchant Navy Education Foundation (RMNEF) is a British educational charity that officers support for the natural or adopted children of Merchant Navy seafarers and professional sea-going fishers, and of crew members of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution’s (RNLI’s) lifeboats. More
  • Extra daylight, extra opportunist thefts
    The warm summer evenings mean that everyone can look forward to spending more time outdoors. More
  • Question time
    What is the one big issue that you would like Secretary of State Nicky Morgan to tackle in this Parliament and why? What is the one burning issue that is affecting you and your school or college? Here, ASCL members share their views… More
  • Leaders' surgery
    Hotline advice expressed here, and in calls to us, is made in good faith to our members. Schools and colleges should always take formal HR or legal advice from their indemnified provider before acting. More
  • Reflected glory?
    The head is an ambassador for the school. However, there are – to put it mildly – some dangers in over-identification between the needs of the school and its leader’s desires, according to Chris Pyle. More
Bookmark and Share

The head is an ambassador for the school. However, there are – to put it mildly – some dangers in over-identification between the needs of the school and its leader’s desires, according to Chris Pyle.

Reflected glory?

L’école, c’est moi,” as Louis LXIV may say if he found himself sitting behind the desk in the head’s study.

Governors understandably want someone who will personify all that is good in their school. The Sun King of Versailles may have a point:

‘We are looking for someone who will embody our school values,’ says one advert in the TES. Another one puts it differently: ‘Essential: To speak for the whole school community.’

Conquering hero

The cult of the leader reached its high point in the hierarchical world of the ancient public school.

A 17th century head of Westminster School is said to have refused to remove his hat for Charles II so that the boys would know that no man was greater than their headteacher.

Two hundred years later, another headteacher’s arrival to watch the school play would be greeted by the theatre rising to its feet and the band striking up, “See the conquering hero comes.” Top that, 21st century super-heads!

Sometimes their mystique even intensified beyond death, which was certainly the case for Dr Arnold of Rugby. Once Tom Brown’s school days were over, he returned to visit his headteacher’s grave.

Our own pupils are unlikely to visit our tombs with quite this quivering emotion:

If he could only have seen the doctor again for five minutes – have told him all that was in his heart, what he owed to him, how he loved and reverenced him, and would, by God’s h help, follow his steps in life and death – he could have borne it all without a murmur.

Universally admired

Pity the soul who inherits a school from such a paragon. There are plenty of curses more terrible for a new head but surely few greater irritations than to discover that your predecessor was universally admired. I recently came across one of these, newly retired. The school had named its major buildings after him and he knew the name of every pupil, of course. Parents used to stay to the end of the dullest parent–teacher association (PTA) function not to miss his wonderful off-the-cuffbons mots. The new head had arrived in September but the following summer the governors were still holding farewell dinners for his predecessor.

With this sort of cultural baggage, it is no surprise that egotism remains a temptation of headship. Its symptoms of vanity and self-pity are as frequent as the common cold.

The real danger of the heroic head, however, is producing helplessness in others. Creating followers, stifling leaders.

This is by no means inevitable. Dr Arnold clearly did not thwart his teachers’ ambition – 23 of them went on to become headteachers elsewhere and some carried the great man’s sayings with them in notebooks of Arnoldiana.

You are what you eat

There is the other, opposite, way to embody the school, however. It is the temptation of accommodation, integration, compromise.

The leader who arrives with moderate designs to shape school culture may find that the way we do things round here is silently absorbed into their managerial DNA.

You are what you eat. Like the jellyfish that is made of the water it swims in, the headteacher is still distinctly visible in outline but has gradually become composed of the expectations of their school.

Or take Flann O’Brien’s famous story of the policeman and the bicycle he rides. During his long journeys, a gradual exchange of atoms takes place. Ultimately, the frequent cyclist on rough stony roads becomes half-man, half-bicycle.

George Orwell wouldn’t be laughing: ‘The creatures outside looked from school to head, and from head to school, and from school to head again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.’

Who needs a hero?

Fortunately, leadership neither begins nor ends in the head’s office. The most inspiring leaders are elsewhere in the organisation: releasing their energy and initiative is the head’s most important long-term role.

Perhaps an all-consuming leader is the last thing your school needs.

“Unhappy the country that has no heroes!”’ calls out one young man in Brecht’s Life of Galileo who is disappointed by his leader’s failings. But Galileo’s reply has the wisdom of experience: ‘“No, unhappy the country that needs a hero.”’

Anyway, I’d better just check that the band is ready for the next school play…

Dr Chris Pyle is Head of Lancaster Royal Grammar School.

Want the last word?

Last Word always welcomes contributions from members. If you’d like to share your humorous observations of school life, email Permjit Mann at leader@ascl.org.uk ASCL offiers a modest honorarium