The Cast of Culprits Part 3: The School Leaders

February 8, 2007

Despite my criticisms of teachers and students I’m still confident that the majority of teachers remain hardworking, dedicated and capable and the majority of students still wish to achieve academically. Although there are excellent secondary headteachers out there – looking for schools where results have improved from nothing to the top of the league table might help you find some of them – there is a widespread problem of heads that cannot make a difference to the problems of their schools and more importantly heads that do not believe they should be solving the problems of their schools.

The reasons for this are probably down to the following:

  • A funding system, inspection system and management systems that are based on paperwork and navigating bureaucracy that conspire to keep heads busy but disconnected from the day to day running of the school.
  • A conservatism that convinces heads that all problems their schools face can be dealt with by traditional methods – good teaching, reminding staff of expectations, letters to parents, telling middle managers what to do – rather than new methods and new distributions of responsibility.
  • Promotion of the weak, ineffectual and visionless – managers who are committed to the education system as it is rather than towards rescuing schools from the system who would never dream of standing up to pushy parents or incompetent LEAs.
  • The continuing persistence of discredited ideologies. In particular a belief in mixed ability teaching in as many subjects as possible, and a belief that children from deprived backgrounds cannot be expected to learn or behave.

In practice this means that teachers often encounter the following behaviour from senior managers that undermine them and their ability to teach:

  • Blaming teachers for all discipline problems. This includes disorder in the corridors, and around the site, problems faced by all new teachers, and worst of all verbal and physical abuse of staff. (The key phrase used is “Discipline is all about relationships”). This is made worse when those hea teachers do not teach and have had the power and status of being senior management to protect them for years.
  • Delegating discipline to middle managers, and worst of all to departments. If large groups of students work together to disrupt lessons, or if detentions are not attended there is little or nothing that departmental managers can do. Even heads of years have only limited time to deal with discipline problems and do not have the power to exclude, which is often what is required.
  • Appeasing students, parents and LEAs. It’s hard to believe how many headteachers seem to believe that they are representatives of interest groups rather than leaders in their own right, attempting to achieve their own clearly stated goals. Nothing is more damaging to staff morale than having no idea what SMT want, but knowing that they are subject to random complaints and unreasonable demands from management.
  • Bullying management techniques. Some heads ignore statutory conditions, intimidate trade union reps, routinely lie in references, and never keep their promises.

There are a few changes that could be made to improve the situation.

  • A change in school funding so that heads no longer have to become full-time form-fillers in order to ensure a good deal for their students. A general reduction in bureaucracy will make management positions more appealing to teachers.
  • A change in discipline so that the responsibility for discipline (and, in particular, sanctions) falls squarely on Senior Management Teams and cannot be delegated. Discipline systems must state consequences and responsibilities exactly. Any responsibilities that fall on classroom teachers cannot involve unpaid overtime, or be unspecified by their contracts. Failure for managers to comply with their own systems should be considered a breach of contract.
  • INSET for senior management to consist of doing a day’s supply teaching in a neighbouring school. Managers who are disconnected from the realities of teaching life are a huge problem in schools.
  • A statutory duty for heads to permanently exclude pupils who assault or verbally abuse staff, deal drugs or bring in weapons and a corresponding end to all targets and financial incentives to reduce exclusions. No head should be able to say their hands are tied on exclusions.
  • An end to mixed ability teaching in the vast majority of subjects, inclusion and the tolerance of poor schools in deprived areas.

Perhaps the worst part of poor management in schools is that a long history of failure is no obstacle to a further career in school management. As I said before there are heads that turn round schools and make a name for themselves as “superheads” and experts in “school improvement”. What there is less publicity for is the army of “not-so-superheads” and “school destroyers” who after turning a good school bad go on to serve for many years as LEA advisors and quangocrats, helping other headteachers to follow their bad example.

Attempts to discuss this entry have been made on INFET and on TES


  1. All true as usual. I should however like to state that even when discipline goes right to the top, if the top is just a glorified financial manager it will make no difference.

    I believe the role should be split. There should be a figurehead leader whom the staff trust and respect even if they don’t necessarily agree with him/her, so preferably a still-occasionally-practising classroom teacher. This person should provide the ethos and the supportive relationship side of things, and the other employee do all the other stuff. There are too many HTs who try to run with the hare and hunt with the hounds. It does nothing for trust and confidence.

    I noticed at Hell High today that one of the admin assistants was busily deleting individual pupils’ detention backlogs off the system. One girl had racked up seven detention-worthy offences in ONE DAY but “doesn’t do detentions”, secure in the knowledge that sooner or later or every half term at least, they will all be vanished away and a “clean slate” provided, courtesy of the HT.

  2. SMT are playing a different game to the one they should be playing. It involves funding, status and spin. It exists to service the league tables, the targets, and the increasingly complex bidding procedures necessary to secure new funding by signing up to a particular speciality. They have been told by the Powers that their school can be evaluated by numbers and they must first service the numbers.

    If their brief was different, and if their performance was evaluated differently, they would manage differently. And there are some out there who are brilliant enough to lead the way while happily also serving the figures.

    Anyway, if you want to hear me going on about this at great length, you know where to click.

    Brilliant blog, BTW. Did you have a snow day? You can guess where the teacher blogs are located on whether they had time to post today!

  3. The business of league table is an immense problem even for a management team with a sincere desire to do the best for their pupils. It’s made even worse by an insistence from OFSTED and LA advisors (some of those ex-HTs?) that an improvement in attainment as measured by league table statistics actually represents an improvement in attainment as measured by kids knowing, understanding and being able to do more.

  4. Brilliant analysis and an excellent set of solutions.
    I agree with you that Heads have to spend far too much time on bureaucracy and are generally (in secondary schools) losing all idea about what kids are like.

    I’d go further than you about SMT being required to do supply for one day a year. I think a fortnight would give them far more of an idea of what the average teacher faces day in, day out. Preferably a neighbouring authority and not necessarily in tough schools as they could then blame whatever befalls them on the school rather than taking responsibility upon themselves.

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