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  • David OMalley

In praise of headteachers

In praise of head teachers

The difficulty in appointing head teachers in catholic schools is easy to understand. The select committee on education in their 9th report said,

It is clear from the evidence we received that headship is currently not seen as attractive because of the many additional duties and pressures which head teachers now have to take on.

The role involves the balancing of complex pressures in a constantly changing educational setting. It demands resilience and a range of skills that few of us possess. Head teachers are a group of people who, in my experience, are courageous, committed and are likely to be motivated much more by faith than by ambition. In common with many bishops they stand at the meeting point between the Gospel and the local secular world, between religion and a practical atheism in our culture. They also bridge the gap between home and school, between the almost industrial mentality of some educational policy and the vocational self sacrifice of staff. They hold together different generations of teachers by maintaining an ethos and tradition that reaches back to former pupils and out into the wider community. They are people that can be stretched at times beyond their limits.

Yet the figure of the head teacher is often portrayed simply as a manager of target-based learning and someone who is only as good as the latest set of exam results. This mechanistic and industrial model of their role as arranging inputs (learning) and outputs (exam results) is a narrow and demeaning view of the head teacher’s role as the spiritual leader of a catholic learning community. The head teacher is undoubtedly responsible for learning and results but the quality and durability of that learning will depend not just on what happens within the curriculum but also upon the relationships that make up the school community. The exam results will only catch part of the learning that happens in the classroom and school community. Much of the richness bequeathed to pupils in a catholic school will only emerge in later life, in family living, parenting, commitment to citizenship and to church. The narrow culture of measurement and the repressive, almost medieval, practice of “blame and shame” leave our head teachers at risk of going over to the “dark side” and adopting narrow mechanical and superficial ways of working and thinking or simply burning themselves out with the loneliness and responsibility involved in holding so many pressures in balance.

As a catholic community, we need to recognise and value the amazing men and women who lead our catholic schools in this country. They lead a church community within diocesan structures that are themselves under pressure. Few people in our church community will appreciate all the pressures under which they labour and we need to be aware of some of the issues they manage each day. They need to:

· Continually improve results in order to avoid slipping down the written and unwritten competitive league tables which in turn might lead to bad publicity, falling roles, amalgamations and even closure.

· Respond clearly and quickly to new educational initiatives that can seem to come from outside the needs of the local community.

· Maintain an active and informed governing body in support of their role.

· Provide ongoing and relevant training for all staff and be skilled in advertising, selecting and recruiting suitable staff as well as dealing with grievances and terminating employment in a just and Gospel-based way.

· Respond to the needs of the local deanery for effective religious education that will bring older pupils back to practice.

· Manage issues of health and safety, relationship education, budgeting and policy management are a regular and time-consuming focus for every head teacher.

· Maintain and model the spirit and ethos of the school so that each pupil and member of staff has the experience, whatever their faith background, of a gospel-based community where spirit and activity are integrated in each person.

These are just some of the roles that I know keep many head teachers late at work and at times distant from their own home. They take work home and live and breathe a role that at times calls for the constant support of their whole family. They see themselves as setting the tone for the whole school, modelling a work ethic for colleagues and absorbing responsibility for tasks that are often difficult to delegate. Many head teachers with whom I have worked know that they are doing a good job and yet they are very close to the limits of their energy for long periods as they balance the secular and spiritual demands of their role. What they sometimes lack is the recognition that bonds them supportively to the community in which they serve. The encouragement head teachers need will come only rarely from the inspectorate structure and more often from the local authority. The most important sustained support a head teacher needs must always come from within the school community; from parents, governors, pupils and staff.

Parents need to see beyond performance tables to the person of the head teacher as a spiritual leader in their community and not simply a service provider for the local authority. Perhaps parents more than most others will recognise in the head a shared commitment and care for their young especially in the confusion of adolescent lives. Governors need to find time to read between the lines of the meetings they attend and support the head at times of celebration as well as during times of trouble or change. Teachers need to take good news into the head’s office and not just problems. Staff in general need to use the middle leaders in the school community to resolve problems before going to the head teacher. Pupils simply need to say thank you to the head teacher when they can, admit their mistakes honestly and enjoy the spirit of the school.

Saint John Bosco recognised the importance of leadership and offered the image of the Good Shepherd as a model for leaders of church based communities. It is a challenging model for the leader; to seek out the lost, establish safe places, and lay down ones own life at times for what really matters. Head teachers will often feel that responsibility to live the Good shepherd model at the heart of the school community. However, the Good Shepherd model is for the whole school community not just the leader. We are all called to shepherd the spirit of love, of truth, of justice and compassion in the school community. Therefore the head teacher also needs to feel shepherded through a genuine concern for them as a person within a school community. The head teacher needs to hear affirmation as well as difficulties from staff. They need to experience some recognition for their role and their informal presence in school and the work they do beyond the school site. In Christian terms those in leadership are called to service and not to status. No community can buy that service as a product, it is always a gift nurtured by a compassionate community.

A school community thrives primarily on respect, understanding, affection and good humour. It is based on team work that has little to do with the solo heroics of fictional characters of films and novels: those who apparently single-handedly turn whole communities around. Real leaders emerge from teamwork and a mutual support. Real leaders emerge in communities that responsibility for the community has to be shared by the whole community and not left to one person. As a catholic community, we cannot allow the narrow and industrial models of leadership to overshadow the model of the good shepherd.

Don Bosco’s believed that praise, recognition and encouragement gave strength to the inner spirit and helped people to remain humble and strong in the service of others. May we find time in our conversations to recognise, praise and encourage those men and women who lead our catholic schools. If they experience the warmth and understanding of their community they can then find even more strength to face the daily challenge to build and shepherd, on our behalf, a new spiritual community in a secular age.

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