When schools are undifferentiated parents rely on their impressions of the headteachers.
It’s the School Open Day. You arrive and take in the wonderful show of pupils, teachers, deputy headteachers doing interesting stuff in state-of-the-art surroundings.
Your child is fascinated by the pyrotechnics, bangs and smells coming from the Chemistry lab. But you are ill at ease. You are distracted by a crowd of people surrounding one besuited individual, smiling and holding court. Is it a pop star? A sports star? A TV celebrity? Of course not. It’s the headteacher, the all-powerful demi-god holding the golden ticket to your child’s future success and happiness. But other parents are getting face time. You sharpen your elbows and join the braying, fawning throng, thrusting your reluctant sprog before you…
For some parents headteachers are the reason to choose the school, but not for most
Without a doubt gaining a place at a favoured school is a stressful experience and with the stress comes a certain fervour and a loss of perspective.
And that loss of perspective takes an unexpected twist. My research suggests that one in three of us consider headteachers to be one of the five main reasons for choosing a school. No big surprise there. However, two in three of us consider headteachers to be one of the five reasons for not choosing a school. In other words headteachers are twice as likely to put you off than win you over.
And it gets worse. Over 90% of (non-relocating) parents who switch their children to a different school cite headteachers as one of the main reasons for leaving.
So what’s going on? How can this person be a figure of reverence and, at the same time, disappointment?
Parents need to keep their impressions of headteachers in perspective
Sure, some headteachers can be pompous, and some come across as world weary. But however important they may be headteachers are just one of 50 different aspects to consider when choosing a school.
For some parents without this perspective the headteacher is the school. For them headteachers are the be all and end all of their school choice. So any meeting is bound to be supercharged with expectation and a minefield for the poor headteacher who, after failing to say anything searingly prophetic after 99 similar interviews, is odds-on to disappoint.
Other parents without this perspective can be far less demanding. As long as the headteacher wears a suitably imposing wide pin stripe, remembers their child’s name, and bangs on about modern teaching with traditional values, they’re in. These are the ones most likely to regret their decision and leave two or three years later.
In the “What does a headteacher do to help your child?” post I suggest some more balanced ways to differentiate between headteachers. It’s worth saying though, that there aren’t many professions that endure the same scrutiny as a headteacher. Parents, staff, school governors, school inspectors, local councils, and all sorts of health, safety and safeguarding authorities all have a viewpoint to convey to the headteacher. And still they come out smiling on Open Day to enjoy their place in the sun.
While they may not be demi-gods, they are a decent bunch, they are role models in society and they do have the best interests of their pupils at heart.