Jayne Dowle: I want head teachers who are firm and fair

Sir Michael Wilshaw
Sir Michael Wilshaw
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WHAT should we expect from a head teacher? It’s a question we parents need to ask. Sir Michael Wilshaw, the chief inspector of schools, warns that poor leadership is blighting up to a quarter of England’s primary and secondary schools. This means that up to 5,000 leaders are not getting to grips with sub-standard teaching and continue to “trot out excuses” such as poverty and deprivation for low exam grades.

I know heads will be gnashing their teeth and sharpening their claws at this condemnation. But Sir Michael was, until recently, head of Mossbourne Community Academy in Hackney, north London.

If you know anything about Hackney, you will understand that he knows what he is talking about. And consider this: last year, 82 per cent of his students passed five GCSEs at A-C grades including maths and English, and seven students accepted places at Cambridge.

What a parent really wants from a head, above all, is for them to run a school which enables their child to reach their full potential.

You’ve got to love Sir Michael for his outspokenness, which comes as he plans to unveil rigorous new inspection procedures. Indeed, I would put such independence of thought near the top of my list for any head.

There is nothing more frustrating than a leader who plays by the letter to the PC rules. We once had one like that at my children’s primary school. When he wasn’t cancelling sports day because the grass was a bit wet, he was letting the staff run rings round him. A nice bloke, we parents all agreed, but just not muscular enough.

I know I’m old-fashioned, but I do like a boss who leads from the front. That’s what gives me confidence in the head of the academy where I hope my son Jack will be heading in, yikes, just over 18 months.

When asked by a parent at an open day what the school policy on bullying was, he answered that there wasn’t one. There wasn’t one, he added, because his school has zero tolerance of bullying.

To some parents that might sound arrogant, but it gives me confidence. And his GCSE results, shooting up in comparison to most other local secondaries, prove that his methods are working.

Sir Michael says that too many parents are loathe to complain about the management of a school because their children are “happy” there.

That’s fine when your little ones are in nursery. The last thing the parent of an under-five wants is for them to be terrified out of their wits by a scary teacher checking their finger-painting. But school has a duty to teach children that although their happiness is important, sometimes other things have to take precedence. Such as learning. And discipline.

Jack’s current class teacher, in all ways admirable, looked slightly taken aback when we told him at the last parents’ evening to be as tough on our son as he needed to be.

I want a head to make sure an atmosphere of happiness prevails, but not at the expense of well-behaved kids and industrious academic work. So they shouldn’t give in to deluded parents who think that their children are angels and march into school to complain at the first sign of admonishment. Be firm, I say.

But a good head should operate on the twin policies of firmness and fairness. And, therefore, he or she should not have to rely on petty rules and bureaucracy to maintain order. Arcane rulings about uniform, for instance, do nothing except cause rebellion and resentment. By all means, have a sensible, smart uniform – I would never argue against it, given that my two would bankrupt me in weeks otherwise – but if a head gets too hot under the starched collar about the finer details, it shows an inherent lack of understanding about the very nature of young people.

It also winds me up personally, because in my heart of hearts, I am still a 14-year-old goth-punk whose eyeliner got me detention every other week. I could never, ever, understand how that black smudge under my eyes detracted from my ability to write a decent essay on the morality in Macbeth. And frankly, 30 years on, I still can’t.

I don’t know about you, but the teachers we respected most were those who thought a bit outside the box. Quite often these were the younger ones, fresh out of training college.

Sir Michael is keen to stress the role of heads in bringing out the best in new recruits to the profession, because he believes that this will help to stem the tide of the thousands who leave shortly after qualifying.

However busy and pressed they might be, a head should lead newly-qualified staff by example. Education is not a means to an end, it is a legacy passed down from generation to generation. The enthusiastic probationer of today could be – should be – the ambitious head teacher of tomorrow. And we need as many of those as we can get.