Friday, 25 July 2014

An ex-headteacher celebrates the end of term

I used to be a headteacher. A combination of governor incompetence, toxic internal politics, Oftsed intransigence and Local Authority panic did for that career but a part of me is still tuned to the rhythms of the school year. So I could not help but notice that this is end-of-term week for English schools, as evidenced of course by the throngs of newly-liberated teenagers basking in the daytime sunshine and hatching great and complicated plans for their weeks of freedom.

This was always an exciting and forward-looking time in the school calendar for me when I was a head. Headship is supposed to be a highly strategic role, yet for most of the year it can be very hard to lift ones eyes from the constant, wearing stream of daily crises that arise from heading an organisation of 1200 students and 200 staff, all with their individual and collective aspirations, grievances, complexities and conflicts. Finally at this time in July as the last kids wander off, too tired to be fractious, and the the last staff party winds down you get to look to the future and start really planning for and imagining all the opportunities the new academic year will bring.

The timetable for the next year will be written by now (even if you have had to step in and finish it yourself), new staff appointments made, next year's Year 7s inducted and a major programme of essential building maintenance works no doubt planned for the holiday closure. Yes there are the exam results to anxiously await but there is nothing that can be done about that for now. By the time the A level results come in on 13th August ( a day earlier than the students get them) and then GCSE results the week after the work of the new term will in a sense have begun. There will be exam analysis to be carried out, press releases to be written, tactical approaches to be devised to address areas of under- (and over-) performance, new sixth formers to be admitted, and on and on it will go.

Yet just for now all that can be ignored. For the next couple of weeks it seems that anything is possible. The school will be emptier than it has been all year, displays taken down and exhortations to last years Year 11 to get their coursework done and plan their revision finally disposed of. It is a time for dreaming big dreams, of what can be achieved if only everyone works together in the same spirit of cooperation and bonhomie that still vaguely lingers from that last staff barbecue. Forgotten for the moment will be the dispiriting stream of negativity from government announcements and tabloid stories. The traditional upsurge in school-bashing that always accompanies exam results is still weeks away.

This is often the time when a new head takes over, the previous one having finally cleared all the junk out of their office, taken down the "inspirational" and utterly meaningless posters from their office walls and moved on. New heads are always positive and welcoming at this time: staff are generally nice to them, particularly if they despised their predecessor but were too afraid to do anything substantial about it while he was in post. The new head will be making bland promises about working together and building an atmosphere of cooperation and shared commitment to a common goal. My door is always open, they will be saying to their staff. You can see me as an ally.

And yet blazing sunshine, empty corridors and the feelgood effect that comes from knowing you've made it through another year can only take you so far. Idealistic plans for the future are wonderful things but as a head you don't get to stay long in that fantasy land where everyone involved in education works together for the good of students. However grand your ambitions might be for a curriculum that enables and encourages all students to acquire the learning skills that will make them citizens of the 21st century you will still find yourself in Michael Gove's narrow-minded 50s-inspired curricular straightjacket. However noble your aspirations are to work collaboratively with other schools and the local authority to address wider issues you will still be caught in the divide-and-conquer policies of near universal academisation. However much you dream of the positive effect of building works for your school you will find that the only capital money available still is for academies and free schools.

And so now, more than at any other time in the school year, I really do not envy the heads who used to be my colleagues. There was a brief period of euphoria when Michael Gove (and Dominic Cummings) got booted out but I doubt very much if that lasted. Nicky Morgan has wasted no time in confirming that Gove's recipe for the future demoralisation and disintegration of the State schools system remains largely unchanged. So what's the point in dreaming?

And without the capacity to dream a better future for your school and its students the summer holidays can come to seem a pretty bleak time.


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