How a good headteacher can save a school

3 June 2009
The Daily Telegraph
link to original

Without leadership and discipline, chaos rules. But this is exactly what the Government is allowing to happen, argues Francis Gilbert

A few years back, I taught at a school that terrified me. Just walking down the corridor was hazardous. Frequently, children would rush up behind me and hit me on the back of the head, shouting out, “Gilly, Gilly, how are ya doing, mate?”

When I complained to my head of year, he said I needed to get a sense of humour; he knew that there was nothing he could do about it. Chaos reigned in and out of class.

In one lesson, all the pupils pushed the furniture out of the classroom and lit cigarettes; in another, I was pelted with drawing pins. On one occasion I sat down on a chair which had been booby-trapped with ripped up cans, cutting my backside.

I didn’t complain. It was pointless: I knew absolutely nothing would be done. My only option was to apply for other jobs, which I did – constantly. Unfortunately, I was considered a failure by potential employers for being at the school, and very few wanted me. The same applied to the majority of the staff, who were mostly desperate to leave but were trapped by the school’s reputation.

A vicious circle had taken hold: poor, weak leadership had led to the school gaining very poor results, which had led to the demoralisation of the staff who couldn’t leave, which led to even worse teaching. They were dark days. My long search for another job did eventually pay off, and I escaped to the leafier and more sedate suburbs of London.

I returned to the school a couple of months ago and was astonished. Shortly after I left, the old head had been sacked and a new one put in place – a very different operator. My head was a cultured, intellectual woman who had agonised, Hamlet-like, over the complexities of all the decisions she had to make. Her replacement is a simple, straight-forward, no-nonsense man who is obsessed with imposing good discipline and getting the children to work hard. He walks around the school with a loudspeaker and fusses endlessly over the state of the pupils’ uniform.

He and his management team check in on lessons all the time, yanking out miscreants if they step out of line. Even though the school has more or less the same intake – more or less all of the children come from deprived homes – their behaviour couldn’t be more different.

Instead of rioting, they line up quietly for lunch; instead of desperate teachers yelling for order, there is a studious hush in lessons; instead of books being flung around the head of a depressed librarian, there is silent working among the bookshelves. Results have sky-rocketed. From having the worst results in the country, the school now has some of the best.

The school exemplifies what Ofsted wants all schools to be. In a report published this week, the schools inspectorate showcases 12 schools in challenging circumstances that have been rated as “outstanding” in at least two inspections and examines the elements that have created this success. Buried in the jargon is a very basic point: the best schools have great teachers who inspire their pupils; these adults assess their charges constantly and are always giving them feedback about how they could improve. Children flourish under this sort of treatment.

However, even the best teachers flounder when there is no law and order; which is where headteachers come in. A shocking majority – 66 per cent – of frontline teachers feels there is a discipline crisis in our schools and one of the reasons they cite is a weak headteacher.

Great headteachers are old-fashioned creatures. Like Dixon of Dock Green, they patrol their patch religiously, learning the names of every pupil, making sure that the naughty kids are punished and the good ones are praised. One such man is picked out in the Ofsted report. Paul Grant is a headteacher in Dagenham, who suspended 300 pupils for poor behaviour during his first week at the school. Sorting out the appalling discipline was crucial, he said, to raising academic studies. As a result, the school has been turned into a success. Unfortunately, given the Government’s ceaseless interventions in the education system, headteachers such as Paul Grant are a dying breed.

One place where they survive is in the Academies. Although these schools have fantastically modern, purpose-built premises, the best ones are traditional in philosophy. In Hackney’s Mossbourne Academy, previously a notorious failing school, the heads have brought order by being tough: insisting upon politeness, impeccable uniform, and setting up boarding school structures such as having “houses” and plenty of competitions. How typical, then, that the autonomy these heads enjoy is now under attack. This week, the Independent Academies Association says they are being made dependent on the “whims of quangos”. They warn of “growing dismay” that Academies are increasingly coming under local authority control.

Increasingly, the hands-on headteachers are being replaced by glorified bureaucrats: sycophantic managerialists who are obsessed with implementing every Government initiative and ingratiating themselves with the educational establishment.

They spend too much time at conferences and rarely poke their heads out of their offices when they are at school. Instead, they issue diktats and set up complex reporting and monitoring structures in school that tie up the teachers in paperwork. The name of the game is making sure that they are never blamed for anything and that they gain a great job after they leave their school – they rarely stay in charge of a school more than five years before moving on to the next sinecure.

They are obsessed with data, putting facts and figures above people. They manipulate the curriculum to get good results: this might include encouraging pupils to take soft options, including syllabi stuffed with easy coursework assignments and implementing vocational courses that are impossible to fail. They deem teachers as no more than “facilitators” of learning, libraries as “resource centres”, and failure as “delayed success”. Pedagogy festers under a welter of paperwork and indiscipline thrives.

What an appalling mess this Government has made of our schools: overloading them with initiatives that do nothing but tie up teachers’ time, spending billions on interfering quangos and foisting politically correct propaganda on the system without implementing serious reform. The result is that four in ten 16-year-olds leave school without a decent maths or English GCSE; and that the profession is attracting fewer of the high-calibre, dedicated people it needs.

This week’s Ofsted report is actually a couched riposte to the damage Ed Balls and his cronies have done. What we need, it is saying, are some tough headteachers who will impose some discipline upon our desperately unhappy and rowdy children. Unfortunately, this is happening in far too few schools and, as a result, our teachers and pupils are lost in the chaos. This Government should be ashamed of itself.


  1. Exactly why our little girl goes to an independant school!!!!

    She’s too young for High School yet, but again we’re already exploring the Independant root.

    Our local council High is know locally as ‘Drugie High’ not exactly inspiring is it!

    Today I walked past many of them walking to school, ties off, or dangling about mid way down their chests with the top three buttons of their shirts unfastend, or tied so sort they looked a bow tie.

    The girls wore their skirts so far above their knees they were half way up their thighs or even higher. They were festooned with cheap bling, and they all seemed to swagger with an ‘attitude’.

    Thinking back to my Secondary School days, in the mid – late seventies I would not have been allowed out of the house looking like that, and woe be tide anyone who actually walked through the school gates dressed so slovenly.

    It isn’t just the discipline though, although that’s a large part of it, the curriculum, and exams have been dumbed down so much they are quite frankly a sorry joke!

    I’ve visited some of the exam boards sites, and looked a papers; some of the questions are utterly pathetic:

    History: On one recent paper there’s a drawing of an Elizebethan theatre; the question;’Describe an Elizebethan theatre.’ What !!!! there’s drawing of the damn thing right in front of your eyes!!!! What the hell is that got to do with history.

    English: Another recent paper: There’s a passenger about a boy in South Africa, hunting and killing a gazelle. The question: ‘Go to paragraph X; lines A,B,C,D,E,F, describe how the boy felt, why did he feel that way, what did he want do…ect ect ect. Again What!!!
    The question directs you to the appropriate paragraph and leads the pupil in answering it. Pressumably this is supposed to be a test of comprehension!!!

    Sorry, but we are determined to get our daughter into a school that sits the IGCSE’ with a sixith form for the IB.

    The education system in this country is a sick joke, and I feel sorry for the teachers, and the kids, particulary those from less well-off backgrounds, because they are being denied the chance to better themselves!

    from Angry Dad
  2. A great head makes a great school – leadership starts from the front (or the top).

    My local primary is superlative thanks to the most unassuming and gentle-natured headmistress you could ever hope to meet. I wish I could clone her and put her into every primary in the country; yes, Mrs. Sinclair, we all love you!

    The local academy is run with an iron fist – they have bibles in EVERY classroom and kids are required to carry one with them at all times. My kids don’t go there – if I need a priest, I’ll go to a church, thank you.

    The problem with parental choice is means that academies auto-select the best parents with the best kids, leaving all the other schools with the dregs – and only then can a great head teacher rescue the situation. It works the other way too – which is why I have no confidence in the people these academies employ – as they’re just managers, bean-counters and suits – not teachers who understand how to lead by example.

    from Marc Draco

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