OPINION: It really can be tough at the top in school - former headteacher Dennis Richards

School Governors are now beginning to think seriously about the new academic year beginning in September.
NADV 1712021AM3 Dennis Richards Park Run, Dennis Richards. (1712021AM3)NADV 1712021AM3 Dennis Richards Park Run, Dennis Richards. (1712021AM3)
NADV 1712021AM3 Dennis Richards Park Run, Dennis Richards. (1712021AM3)

Most especially, where a school is faced with a change of headteacher. The appointment process is vastly more complicated than it used to be. The issue of fairness is to the fore, with anonymised application forms, rigid adherence to the policy of asking the candidates the same questions and the widespread practice of using a recruitment agency to advertise the post.

Having recently seen the process at close hand, there is much to be said for these genuine attempts to broaden the appeal of headteacher posts to a wider range of teachers. I came out of the process with two overriding impressions.

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Firstly, the number of teachers wanting to go on to a headship post has been in sharp decline for several years.

Today in 2022, the downsides of taking on a headship are there for all to see. A hugely stressful pandemic, war in Europe, Government encouraged competition between individual schools or Academy Trusts, massive teacher recruitment problems in shortage subjects, stringent new safeguarding requirements, and budgetary deficits especially in disadvantaged schools, all make the role nigh-on impossible.

I am unqualified to comment on ‘levelling up’ in other areas. In education we are miles off. Just ask the parents and Governors about the sad situation at Woodfield School.

The appointment process has radically changed. That much is clear. There is however, conversely, much about the role, which hasn’t. Key to the whole process of running a school remains an understanding of the difference between leadership and management.

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Leadership is all about ‘vision’. The Good Book tells us that without vision, the people perish. It is to do with a passion for the welfare of children, their safety, health, and achievement within a framework built on values. And a capacity to articulate that vision to staff, parents, and students in a convincing way. Management is the skill to bring it into a reality. Walk the talk in simple terms.

In another field of endeavour, Joe Root, far and away the best batsman in the current national cricket set up, resigned last week as Captain of England. It led me to speculate on the successful leaders and the ones who failed.

Ian Botham, Andrew Flintoff, Kevin Petersen all became captain of England on the strength of an ebullient personality and a brilliantly flamboyant way of playing the game. All failed as captains. The newly appointed Ben Stokes is very much in the same mould.

I trust the comparison hasn’t ‘jinxed’ him. One post-war captain stands out. In cricketing terms, he couldn’t bowl, was an average fielder and his batting statistics were even more modest. Mike Brearley knew exactly what he wanted from his team, and had the management skills to bring his vision to a successful reality. Local hero Geoffrey Boycott, on the other hand, good batsman as he undoubtedly was, proved to be a hopeless captain.

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The late Bob Willis recalls a match in New Zealand when Geoffrey, distraught at being given out, returned to the dressing room, put a towel over his head, sat in the corner and told his team to “get on with it.”

On the same tour Botham deliberately ran our Geoffrey out. General hilarity in the England team dressing room. Brearley was appointed as strategic thinker. “A good leader is looking for a trend before it’s obvious to everyone else.”

I’m guessing that leadership with a towel over your head was not what he had in mind. The job remains as rewarding as ever; and tougher than ever at the same time.

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