When interviewing potential new colleagues, I always open proceedings with the question: “Why do you want to work at this school?” I do this for two reasons. First, this is, I hope, a straightforward question with which to settle nervous candidates, and second, because I want to be reassured that they at least pretend to want to work at my school as much as I did.
As is the case in many schools at this time of year, we have been involved in a relatively high number of interviews recently, not just because of natural turnover, but also because the school is undergoing a period of increasing pupil numbers and so needs increased levels of staffing.
When listening to the various responses given to my question, I have been struck by an unexpected common theme which runs through many of the answers – namely, the strong impression that our school is like a family or a community with a clear common purpose.
For this to become apparent to visiting candidates during what is inevitably a hectic day suggests to me that this must be very deeply embedded in what we do.
I have always been a staunch advocate of vertical tutoring because it mimics a family unit in that older and younger students support each other under the supervision of a tutor acting in loco parentis. As many family units become highly complex and dynamic, the stability that this “tutor family” provides is, I believe, ever more important.
Sadly, the strength and values of our community were tested recently and during this very difficult time I was reminded of the feeling of family that we project externally. It fell upon the school, with me at the forefront, to set the tone of our response in the most challenging of circumstances. As events unfolded, it became ever more apparent that I, as headteacher, was being called upon not only to support students and staff, but also to provide similar support and advice to parents and members of the wider school community, including the governing body.
That so many members of our community were looking to the headteacher to set out how best to deal with these circumstances came as quite a shock to me. Certainly there was nowhere in the training for headship that covers appropriate moral and ethical behaviour in such circumstances and so I just had to rely on my instincts.
During this time I sought the support of a wise ex-colleague who advised me that, at times like this, headteachers find themselves defaulting to a more ministerial role for which there is no training and no rule book.
As teachers, we are all too aware of the expanding remit that we are expected to fulfil. Barely a day passes without some pundit pointing out that the sins of society can readily be addressed via education. Soon there will be no time for traditional subjects as the curriculum gets squeezed to fit in “effective parenting” training for 11-year-olds, “being a good citizen” classes for the under-5s, “how to be healthy by eating five (or is it seven?) a day” – I could go on.
Now it seems that we have to add ministerial guidance to our growing list of duties. Until relatively recently this moral guidance would have been provided by a community’s religious leaders and I am sure that this is still the case in many areas. Where it is not the case, however, will the void be filled by schools and their school leaders? From all too recent personal experience, I find this a very daunting prospect. There is a reason why religious leaders have specialised training that prepares them for leading their community in times of trial. Have we reached the point where school leaders need training in this role? I, for one, sincerely hope not.
Diary of a headteacher is written anonymously and in rotation by three practising headteachers from schools across the country.