My summer holiday reading this year included Ruth Winstone’s fascinating Events, Dear Boy, Events (the title is an alleged quote from prime minister Harold Macmillan in response to an interviewer who asked him what was the most difficult thing about his job).
The book, a genuine “couldn’t put it down” read especially for someone who’s lived through much of it, is a collection of excerpts from the diaries of politicians and political observers, from 1921 to 2010.
It has hundreds of contributions from dozens of diarists, all the way from such as Beatrice Webb, Ramsay MacDonald and Lady Violet Bonham Carter up to Chris Mullin, Robin Cook and Piers Morgan, finding room for Noël Coward and Cecil Beaton along the way.
So much stands out, including an entry by Labour MP and future party leader Hugh Gaitskell dated October 14, 1954, in which he recounts a meeting with grammar school heads to discuss Labour’s emerging policy on comprehensive schools.
At one point, Eric James, High Master of Manchester Grammar, accuses Gaitskell (or at least his party), of “ignorance, frivolity and envy”.
However, writes Gaitskell, always the consummate politician: “I think that by the end of the weekend, we had begun to understand each other’s point of view better.”
One entry, though, that made me smile, was by Harold Macmillan, written when he was a minister in Anthony Eden’s government. He describes a cabinet meeting held on June 26, 1955.
“The last item on the agenda was an FO (Foreign Office) item – the vast and complicated problem of Arab/Israeli relations. However, the item before it was the suggested road changes at Hyde Park Corner. So we never got as far as Egypt or Palestine.”
In a way, it is reassuring to know that even at the very top of government, a meeting can linger on a relatively unimportant item that’s easy to visualise and pontificate about, while really urgent but more remote stuff is glossed over or pushed on to next time.
So, what do you think as the term begins, bringing another round of meetings – departmental, senior leadership team, governors, parents?
Will they all stay tightly focused on the priorities? Or will they sometimes be knocked off course by whatever is the equivalent of the roadworks at Hyde Park Corner?
Were I to ask any gathering of heads and teachers about the way meetings can become diverted by interesting trivialities, I have a feeling I’d gather some choice stories. Here’s my own list of favourite HPCs (Hyde Park Corners) culled from personal experience.
Cutting pencils in half before issue.
Hot air blowers or paper towels? (Involves the concept known to the building maintenance industry as “paper towel abuse”.)
Cars, parking, the school gate, zig-zag lines, and so on, and so on...
Uniform – cost, enforcement, what counts as infringement, “what exactly are year tutors supposed to do?” etc etc.
PE and games excuses. “You wouldn’t believe...”
Duties. “I can’t be everywhere. What happens if ‘x’ happens behind the boiler house while I’m tackling an outbreak of ‘y’ between the huts.”
You could double or treble this list with no trouble. All are important of course, no doubt about that, but if the school operates the principle sometimes known as, “making the main thing the main thing”, they need to be kept within bounds.
The answer? Strong, decisive, yet sensitive chairmanship of course. Sadly though, not all people thrust into a chair have what it takes. It seems that Anthony Eden, his career largely built, some say, on charm, looks and patronage, didn’t. Not all heads have the right stuff either – effective chairing isn’t necessarily a headship attribute.
Even some chairs of governing bodies are tempted to latch on to any HPC that comes up, and keep it in play, fuelled by personal anecdotes, till the lights fail and the weary world goes to its rest.
I joke, but there’s a serious issue here. Ineffective, prolonged and rambling meetings damage morale, sap energy and make people reluctant to raise anything at all. What’s needed is for any or all of those attending not to sit back and inwardly seethe, but to be alert and take some responsibility for keeping the meeting focused.
Agendas are, or should be, produced by consensus. The chair has a duty to ensure that all items are properly dealt with, and members need to help with that, by intervening where necessary.
I simply cannot count the number of meetings I’ve attended and chaired over the last 50 years. Many of them, including some chaired by me, lost their way.
Often, though, a colleague would rescue the position by raising a hand and saying, simply and firmly: “Can we make progress please.” (Which is code for “get on with it, for crying out loud”.)
Why didn’t Macmillan do that? Possibly there were stronger internal tides running within that cabinet. Maybe Harold wanted Anthony to fail, as indeed he did, over the 1956 Suez crisis, letting in Macmillan as PM in early 1957. But that kind of political shenanigan would never happen in a school would it?
Gerald Haigh was a teacher in primary, secondary and special schools for 30 years, 11 of them in headship. You can find him on Twitter @geraldhaigh1