Leaders or Managers?

The Labour Party it seems is to go into the Election with a proposal that schools will in future be organised into Federations with a single Superhead responsible for six or more schools, with only a Deputy Head left on site.  The Conservatives, mindful of their often stated explanation for failing schools as being stifling local authority bureaucracy are proposing to create five thousand Swedish-style, parent-run, Primary Academies.  Both Parties seemed confused as to how schools should actually be run, and what is the role of the headteacher.

A good Head makes an extraordinary difference to the quality of a school because they draw around them staff who, united behind a common vision, give of their best.  I was fortunate to have been appointed Head in 1974 of a comprehensive school in Hertfordshire, a well-run authority that had enthusiastically built many new primary schools following the 1944 Act.  Twenty years later Hertfordshire (a Conservative Authority) had embraced comprehensive reorganisation. Reorganisation had preceded relatively smoothly because the Authority saw its key role as supporting the constructive autonomy of every Head to do what each knew was in the best interest of their children in their community.

On the day I was appointed I was told, in no uncertain terms, that “Your job is to be the best teacher in the school.  Your teachers have to admire you for your classroom skills.  Administration has to take second place.”  For its part the Authority shouldered the lions’ share of the administrative load, so enabling me to run a school of some nine hundred boys with only two secretaries and a part-time bursar.  And to teach a one-third timetable.  It was an immensely satisfying job.  It depended upon my trusting County Hall to do their bit of the bargain, and give me the support of specialised staff when I needed them.  I did comfortably what I had to do, and still had the time and opportunity to see the forthcoming implications of the new technologies so that, in 1979, we opened what was to become England’s first ever fully computerised classroom with a terminal for every child.

Other Heads didn’t see the job in such terms, and progressively lobbied County Hall to delegate more of the administration to themselves.  They enjoyed that administration, but it reduced their teaching load.  When in 1983 a new Education Minister, Keith Joseph, made a speech about cutting the fat from the educational bone, I suggested that we should band together and write to tell him how wrong he was.  Few of my colleagues accepted that this was part of their job, and were fearful that this would upset the County Officials.  However, believing that it was my responsibility to speak up for the needs of children and teachers, I wrote personally to the Minister, and copied the letter to The Times.  Three days later I had a phone call from his office: “Sir Keith is interested in your views and would like to visit you at your school next Friday.  I hope that is convenient to you.  We already checked that out with your Chief Education Officer who is agreeable.”

That was more than a quarter of a century ago.  The enthusiasm of my colleagues to be seen as effective managers has turned into a Faustian bargain; every year Heads now receive from the Department documents equivalent to all the words in the King James’ Bible, for which they are now held personally accountable.  In the process they have lost their professional responsibility to be leaders.  Leaders and managers are fundamentally different; managers, it is said, do things right, but leaders do the right things.  The Labour Party see Superheads as being managers, but unless the Conservatives balance their enthusiasm for primary Academies with a reinvention of central support facilities, the Heads of these Academies will become so immersed in administration that they will lack the professional zeal to stand up and lead their schools in the right direction.

See Part Nine and Action 6 of the Briefing Paper