Ousted – The loneliness of headship – a slightly modified version

Times Educational Supplement
April 14th 2000

Eighteen months ago, after twenty-two years teaching in the maintained sector, I left the headship of a large voluntary-aided church school. I had been there for just three years and was fifty-one.

There was no question of impropriety. The school had remained massively oversubscribed; OFSTED inspectors reported that the school gave good value for money and the GCSE results later that year showed a ten per-cent increase in the number of pupils gaining five or more GCSEs. No major concerns about the running of the school had ever been raised during my half-termly meetings with the local education authority link inspector.  Indeed, at the suggestion of the LEA, the school was to be used as a model of good practice for the induction of primary pupils. However, at the end of August 1998, I found myself wondering whether I would ever wish to teach again.

Towards my second year of headship, a few weeks after our OFSTED inspection, I had been aware of straws in the wind.  In what was generally a very good report the inspectors had suggested that a more definite sense of direction was required from governors and head despite my making it very clear to them that, as the recently appointed head of a successful school, I had decided not to pursue major change when an inspection was pending. The governors had supported my view and the senior inspector made it clear that the criticism was leveled at the governors just as much as it was at me.

As I finished drafting a response to the inspectors’ report, three members of the governing body told me that the then chair of governors, the second of the three with whom I worked, was actively seeking adverse criticism of me. He was replaced at the start of the autumn term two months later.  Later that term, in November, the diocesan director of education wrote to me: “Things look good for the school – it must feel so much more positive for you now.”

Three months later, as a “professional adviser”, this same person became involved in procedures concerning my competence.  These procedures had come about at the behest of the new chairman, who had himself written of me some months previously, “I believe that we have a first-class head teacher, but I think this is a critical time to help and support him in taking key decisions as to how the school is to be run.”

I was bewildered.  At a preliminary meeting with the chairman, the diocesan director, the lea’s senior inspector and a representative from my professional association I was informed that three senior governors no longer had confidence in me and that the chairman of governors had sought “professional advice” and had decided to instigate competence proceedings.

Exhausted, I had forgotten these two written tributes from two of my antagonists. Five targets were set and a date arranged for a further meeting.

Before this second meeting I was assured by my school’s “link inspector” that I had met all five targets. At the meeting I was told that only one-and-a-half targets – involving the role and function of a head teacher and communication and administration – had been met.

Even now, it is difficult to convey the strange, almost surreal detachment I experienced as the business was dispatched.  I had known the people concerned for three years, had been entertained by them and had entertained them.  Now they had obviously turned against me.  All of them had given advice a few months previously as I had had to decide whether to take disciplinary steps against a member of staff.  It was a particularly difficult decision but one that all my protagonists had been keen for me to pursue with considerable vigour.  I had proceeded, but with considerable reservations, and had imposed a minimal sanction against which there had been an appeal to the governors which they had upheld.  It was now part of the chairman’s case against me that I had mishandled the matter in a way that reflected badly on my competence.

Two further canards were to follow.  The number of exclusions from the school, allegedly, had increased during my time at the school: the truth was that they had not changed at all and, in fact, remained by a long way the lowest of all the schools in the area.  There was secondly an assertion that I had been provided with a mentor to see me through the early days of headship, part of a claim that I had been properly supported.  When I asked for the name of the mentor there was no reply – I had not been given one.

I was offered a short sabbatical and a term’s severance pay.

The field officer of my professional association was direct and practical: whatever my views and feelings about the injustice of the proceedings and the soundness or otherwise of the conclusions, I should accept the package.

There was no question of resistance.  It had been made plain to him, as it had to me, that should I not do so, matters could become particularly unpleasant and possibly public. I had not slept the previous night, and had not slept well for several weeks.  I sensed the burden lifting by the minute: the next morning I confirmed my decision to leave.

Why did I agree to this? I was exhausted. The sense of isolation which is part of a head teacher’s lot, and my sense of betrayal by people who had invited and encouraged my trust, made me dependent, then, on the advice of a professional association which told me to take the money and go.  Additionally, although I was very much aware of what I had achieved at the school, I felt that there had to be a better way to live my life.

I have been asked what might have been done to avoid this situation.  Clearly I should have set a lot less store by the third chairman of governors and his apparent determination to support me prior to his election as chairman, and struck out independently in my own direction in my dealing with two other governors who wished to insist on their way in respect of certain aspects of school management. Had I done that I could more readily have stood my ground. I most certainly should not have trusted the chairman of governors when he agreed with me that we should delay tackling these two difficult governors, whom he later claimed had been supporting his views all the time.  Support for me would have been more forthcoming from senior colleagues, parents and other, less involved governors but it is incredibly difficult for a head under the sort of pressure that I experienced to approach such people.

All this is easy to explain with hindsight.  At the time my decision to leave was made easier by the unease I have long felt about the maintained system of education in England.

I am pleased about much that I did as a head, the quality of the staff I appointed, the improvements to cramped buildings which had been needed for years, the continued oversubscription of the school and the great improvement in GCSE results.  I am proud that the religious body responsible for inspecting the school declared us to be “a good church school” and that a black governor, a local clergyman, had told a meeting of his fellow clergy that the black children in the school were very well integrated and suffered none of the disadvantages black children suffered elsewhere.  I was a teaching head, an enthusiastic and hard-working one who always found time for people.

Since last year I have taught in a prep-school, at two public schools and on an intensive Easter revision course. I have marked ‘A’ level and I.B. scripts for the first time and spent a month as a course director of a summer school for overseas students. In September I took up a senior post in an international boarding school in Europe where my wife and I are enjoying sharing the work of running a boarding house. We are both very pleased to have embarked upon this most stimulating of adventures.

I suppose, in a strange sort of way, that I ought to be grateful to those people who took such pains to set me off on the next stage of my career. For me the change of direction is becoming more and more rewarding. I would like to believe that this is what those who diverted me intended.

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