IT WAS more than half a century ago, but I still remember my first day as a teacher. I was ushered into the head’s office just as the janny was lighting the open fire. A couple of minutes later the secretary appeared with his tea and biscuits. A half-finished crossword rested by his armchair. My induction was how to complete the register; followed by a none-too subtle threat of what would happen if I got it wrong. To pupils and staff, he was a bit like Stalin, only less compassionate.

Over the years I worked with many headteachers. They were a mixed ability bunch. A couple were outstanding, most were OK and one or two shouldn’t have been out on their own. Irrespective of ability, it was obvious their job was becoming tougher, as staffing and resources were cut back. It’s no surprise current headteachers are struggling to cope with the additional demands of the pandemic. School reopening has been overlaid on an already crushing workload; headteacher burnout is a real possibility. Arrangements for reopening have been a bit like an inverted triangle, with the full weight bearing down on headteachers at the sharp end.

Even before the present crisis, the number of applications for vacant headships was shrinking. Posts that formerly would have attracted a sack load of applicants, now draw only a handful. Some schools have struggled to find a headteacher at all, probably because many teachers feel they can do without the stress.

Pressure is exerted from all directions. Parents identify the head and the school as one and the same. Every head has his or her critics lurking in the darker corners of the staffroom. They form an educational Greek chorus denying heads credit when things go well, and lambasting them when problems arise. Local education officers, most of whom have never done the job, are only too willing to share their inexperience and opinions. The head carries the can for critical inspectors’ reports. Negative reporting in the local press can be particularly stressful, especially in small communities.

Most headteachers accept that they are accountable when things go wrong. But, should they be, when working with one hand tied behind their backs? In reality, heads have limited access and control of the levers that count, such as funding, staffing and curriculum. In the meantime, centrally driven, national initiatives struggle to deliver the government’s educational priorities. Improvement is built from the ground up, at classroom, school and community levels. Headteachers are best placed to know the needs and priorities of their schools and communities. Sure, hold them accountable, but first, trust and genuinely empower them to do the job.

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