Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

The last word

Last word

In this issue, The Last Word fondly remembers the days when a year's worth of DfES correspondence fit in one small file and there was no need for a Heads' Legal Guide.

How much I admire the school leaders of today! They are marvellous, these heads, deputies, assistants and management teams. I am not saying that they are greater than in the past - that would be a meaningless statement and, in any case, there were giants in those days too.

What I do know is that modern society is very much in debt to those who lead schools. The job, always difficult, has become even tougher and leaders are required to do so much more than they used to have to do, in circumstances that are more constraining.

In a book still very amusing and readable, The Lighter Side of School Life, Ian Hay says this of the headmaster: "He is always tired, for he can never rest. His so-called hours of ease are clogged up by correspondence, most of it quite superfluous, and the telephone has added a new terror to his life.

"But he is always cheerful, even when alone; and he loves his work. If he did not, it would kill him."

That book was published in 1914 and so there is a certain sense in which 't'was ever thus'. However, the worst that Hay can envisage is 'correspondence' and the telephone; nowadays the horrors of bureaucracy are far greater.

When I first became a head 30 years ago, it was not uncommon for me to ask my secretary to bring in the post only to receive the reply that there wasn't any today. I doubt whether that ever happens in schools now, even in the middle of the holidays.

Another abiding memory relates to my filing cabinet which had a very slim pocket file, almost empty, which was dedicated to 'DfES' or whatever it was then called. Everything that came from the government, absolutely everything, could be contained in that one slim file.

Years might go by without receiving anything at all and then, perhaps, a letter might arrive about the storage of chemicals. That was it.

My governors, excellent people, met once a term (whether they needed to or not, as the chairman said quoting the old Lancashire joke about taking baths) and had no sub-committees. Of course, there was no national curriculum and, in fact, nothing 'national' at all. Nor was there, in those day, a Heads' Legal Guide, nor any need for one.

Now I am definitely not singing about a golden age and saying that all was marvellous. However, I am showing how unnatural the present situation is where the government interferes in every detail of school life. It used not to be so and schools managed quite well.

My own teaching career was partly in the maintained sector and partly in the independent sector. In my retirement, I lead inspections of independent schools.

Anyone who reads the inspection reports on those schools will see that it is perfectly easy for schools to flourish without having a curriculum laid down by the government or having details about the schools decided by outsiders. It is rare, indeed, for the curriculum of any independent school to be seriously criticised by inspection.

By chance, my local MP in Bolton West is a certain Ruth Kelly. I say nothing of politics, but she is an energetic and popular constituency member. One has to be in her company for only five minutes to realise how very bright she is. She has four children who are at or approaching school age.

I offer her advice. She can, without spending one penny of extra money, bring about amazing changes in schools. All she has to do is make one alteration to the regulations applying to schools: they will all remain, but they will no longer be compulsory but simply recommendatory or advisory.

At a stroke, school leaders could use their immense professionalism to make decisions for the good of their pupils. The beauty of it, too, is that no school need change. Those happy with the national curriculum and all the multifarious bureaucracy of government can simply carry on.

However, schools would have the freedom to run their own affairs. School leaders in the maintained sector would have the same opportunities as do leaders of independent schools.

The Ian Hay book to which I referred has a splendid dedication, which I will borrow to sum up: "To the members of the most responsible, the least advertised, the worst paid and the most richly rewarded profession in the world."

Eric Hester was a head for 24 years until his retirement six years ago. He is now a reporting inspector for the independent schools inspectorate.

The Last Word always welcomes contributions from members. If you would like to share your humorous observations of school life, please email Sara Gadzik at leader@ascl.org.uk We do offer a modest honorarium.

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