Here are five important roles that a headteacher fulfils. Yours may be stronger at some than others.
Let’s get one common misconception out of the way. You don’t actually have to like the headteacher. Whether or not the headteacher is charming or a “good laugh”, can unduly influence some parents’ decisions. Just as you don’t have to like your doctor, but trust their ability to prescribe the right medicine. Just as you don’t have to like your bank manager but trust them to give sound financial advice. The headteacher is not meant to be your bezzie, but you do need to trust them to provide the right education for your child.
So how can you differentiate between headteachers, and what information should you be getting from a meeting with them?
Let’s start with what they do. We would suggest that they have five principle roles; as communicators, strategists, administrators, secret agents and, er, teachers.
The headteacher as a communicator
First, let’s look at the communicator role. This is typified by the role headteachers play on an Open Day, a prize giving, to alumni or fund donors. Whenever the value of the School needs to be stated and argued. This role puts the bums on seats. This is also the role that many parents judge the headteacher by. They assume that it conveys competence in the other roles, which of course it does not.
The headteacher is the embodiment of a school; the epitome and enforcer of its ethos and its values. So rather than being swayed by the headteacher’s communication skills the focus should be on what the communicator is actually communicating about the school.
For example, celebrating the achievements of a particularly gifted set of pupils will tell you one thing about the school. Celebrating the achievements of a whole year group or a group of “average” pupils tells you another.
Reciting great chunks of Homer and Ovid might be impressive but is that telling you that the school values classical literature above all else? If you hear words such as (for example) “inspiring”, “trust”, “caring” can you find evidence of these words in action? If not they are merely platitudes. Some schools, in particular boarding schools, present the headteacher and their spouse as a package to communicate something positive about family values and pastoral care. Always worth checking to see if the spouse is on the pay roll, and what it is they do before accepting that message.
The headteacher as a strategist
The strategist role really gives parents the opportunity to engage and differentiate between headteachers.
The strategist role is the headteacher’s ability to define, implement and communicate an education strategy for the school. This strategy has to ensure the perpetual relevance of the education that your child receives. Ultimately, it will determine your child’s success in accessing the next stage of their educational career and life.
But here’s a thought. Your child may spend seven or more years at this school. Economists at the World Bank, IMF, HM Treasury, with all their specialist resources, can’t predict even three months forward. So while it may be a little unreasonable to expect an accurate view of the world seven years out, you should expect the strategist to do better than “modern languages are going to be important” or “computing’s going to be big”.
You can get some kind of reassurance by considering the evidence of the headteacher’s strategic intervention to date.
Firstly, consider the outcomes of the headteacher’s strategy. Have the number of places and awards won at certain senior schools increased during the headteacher’s tenure? How about performance in national exams, sporting and artistic pursuits? Has the number of pupils joining and staying at the school changed?
Then consider what is influencing the headteacher’s strategy. How informed are they about educational trends and developments? What are their views on pertinent social trends? Do they write a blog? How informed are they about what parents think is important; have they asked you? How often does the junior headteacher visit senior schools to understand the changing nature of entry requirements? How often does the senior headteacher visit universities, colleges or employers?
And then there is the strategy (or strategies) itself. What is it? When will it be implemented and with what milestones? How enthused are the staff about it? What does the headteacher do to monitor progress and reinforce the strategy? How many training sessions and class observations are there? How often does the headteacher speak with parents to gather information, share results and/or reinforce the message?
The headteacher as an administrator
And then there is the unseen, the administrator role. The stuff headteachers have to do but probably get the least job satisfaction from. Responsibilities such as running the school to revenue and cost budgets, ensuring quality of the teaching provision, organising the curriculum and school procedures, measuring outcomes and report writing, managing, motivating and training a hierarchy of staff, managing the buildings and estate, ensuring compliance with Department of Education, Inspector and local council mandates and guidelines, ensuring the welfare, safety and safeguarding of pupils and staff.
Sometimes, particularly in larger schools, parts of the administrator role are delegated to Heads of Year, or Heads of Key Stage. These might be the people who lead Open Days and information sessions. Like all with this administrator role, they can take questions on the nuts and bolts of the delivery of education to your child; the curriculum, the school day, procedures and so on.
But there are perhaps more interesting topics to engage a headteacher with in your meeting. If you want a perspective on how well the headteacher manages statutory compliance requirements may we suggest the Ofsted or ISI reports for a bit of bedtime reading?
The headteacher as a secret agent
Don’t let all that tedious administration deceive you. For once, maybe twice, in your child’s school career, the headteacher might astound you with the secret agent role. The headteacher knows people (at senior schools, at universities, at employers). They whisper in ears (at senior schools, at universities, at employers). They nod and they wink (at senior schools, at universities, at employers). If your child has blown an entry exam, they might just know a way to get them a second chance. They can’t work miracles. If your child doesn’t truly deserve a place at a destination establishment they’re powerless. But give them the chance to right a wrong, they will. Quietly. Secretly.
Unfortunately, you’re not going to be able to test this out on a school visit. But you might hear a rumour or two.
The headteacher as a teacher
I discuss the teacher role in a later post so I won’t dwell on it here. But the particular relevance to the headteacher is that all headteachers started as teachers. And as teachers they are interested in their pupils, their strengths, their achievements and want to facilitate their ambitions. In some senior schools the headteacher may teach their specialism as a way to get to know their pupils. In some junior schools, the Headteacher will teach a humanities or a cross curricular subject, usually to the senior end of the school.
The balance of these five roles varies according to size of school, funding of the school, and to a lesser extent, their personal preference. I observe that on average, headteachers in schools under local council control do more of the administrator role than their counterparts in some academy and independent schools. Similarly, headteachers in junior departments of straight through schools do less strategy than headteachers in standalone junior or senior schools. Headteachers in smaller schools tend to do more teaching than those in larger schools.
And finally, consider this irony. After all the thought you’ve given to the headteacher, after all the time invested in your courtship, who is the one teacher your child will see least in their time at the school? You’ve got it. The headteacher.