Good Year HeadsMay 3, 2010
I have repeatedly seen good heads of department go to the wall. Sidelined, blamed or driven out, because they could not perform miracles. They could not create learning in an environment where learning is unusual. They could not change expectations where management were intent on lowering them.
In the other part of middle management, with year heads, it is different. I have seen good year heads overcome bad managers. I have seen schools transformed in certain year groups by excellent year heads. I have seen year heads do so well that SMT could not miss their achievement.
I’m not convinced I know how they do so well, and I certainly wouldn’t have a clue how to do the job myself. However I have noticed that good year heads have always had these qualities:
Experience. It never ceases to amaze me how, far more than any other managerial position, year heads improve with age. People who rise to being year heads early in their career are usually disastrous. The best ones have often been teaching decades. It’s not a job you can just pick up without having developed a clear vision beforehand. It also helps if it is the position you aspire to, not a stopping point on the road to senior management.
Focus. Good year heads have their own targets, rather than sharing those of the school. Usually these are simple: behaviour, uniform, equipment. I’m always a bit sceptical about the idea that being strict about uniform and equipment improves behaviour generally, but it certainly seems to work within a year team. Making sure that form tutors enforce rules that, perhaps, classroom teachers don’t generally enforce, and supporting them when they do, establishes that form teachers have greater authority over their forms.
Pro-Teacher Sympathies. Good year heads never try to mediate between staff and pupils. They communicate to their students that they are expected to behave, regardless of how they get on with their teacher, and it is not up to teachers to appease them. Obviously, I am biased on this point, but I have seen that it works. Behaviour is better in years with these year heads because students know that if they escalate their behaviour to the point where they involve their year head then they are making an enemy they can’t live with, not bringing in a friend. Appeasers make lousy year heads, and kids actually end up behaving badly in order to be sent to their year head.
Helpfulness with Workload. Pastoral systems create ridiculous amounts of work for tutors. More than any tutor can hope to ever keep on top of. A good year head will reduce unnecessary work to a minimum and encourage tutors to concentrate on keeping their forms ready to learn. They will also take work from tutors, for instance, offering to oversee a child on report, or to contact parents themselves.
Scepticism about Initiatives. If a year head sees themselves as an agent of management, in charge of selling SMT’s daft initiatives to sceptical staff then they are unlikely to be trusted by the people they manage or to create support for their own vision. Year heads who are intent on doing a good job in their year will admit to the year team if something is a waste of time and needn’t have too much effort put into it. This keeps the team focused on the genuine priorities.
Thoroughness. The best year heads follow up everything. I don’t know how they do it but they do.
Now, all these things are what I would want from a year head in general, if just because they make it more pleasant to be a form tutor. But I am not simply explaining my tastes here. I am claiming that, in my experience, these things are not just good in principle, but they actually have visible effects. I have worked in a school where you could go to an assembly for one year group and the kids would be loud, half out of uniform, sat where they like, and unable to keep quiet even when being addressed by senior managers. Then you could go to an assembly for another year group and the students would walk in silently, in single file, wearing their uniforms perfectly. Then they would sit down in their form groups, and wait silently for the assembly to start. The difference would be one year in age, but it would be a different world. I have also dealt with students in the same school where in one year group a child who is asked to behave would reply by saying “you can’t make me, I’m going to my year head” and in another year group a child who is asked to behave would comply immediately if you simply said “if you cannot do what you are told, then I will need to discuss this with your year head”. It is probably worth adding that these year heads who were most feared were also the most loved. It never ceases to amaze me how much the worst kids can be desperate for approval from the same year head who is most keen to hassle them.
Of course, the fact that year heads can make such a difference, more than other middle managers, more than most SMT, perhaps makes it inevitable that many schools have been moving away from having year heads and towards having “mentors”, non-teaching support staff doing the job of a year head, at a fraction of the wage, and usually doing a far worse job.