At least two Dulwich Heads are retiring during this academic year.  We asked the Revd  Nick Earle, who taught at Dulwich College and JAGS  and was  Headmaster at one time of Bromsgrove School,  what problems incoming Headteachers are likely to face.

Every school is different; all schools are the same.  This is the paradox which confronts every headteacher when he or she takes up a headship at a new and relatively unknown school.

All schools are the same because all are composed of four constituencies: the governors, the staff, the parents and the pupils.  Each understands the school in its own way; the governors understand it as a financial responsibility, the staff as a means of livelihood and, if they are fortunate enough, as an opportunity to fulfil a lifelong vocation.  The parents, on the other hand, see it as a means of advancing their children’s ‘life-chances’ and perhaps their own prestige while the pupils, who of course are the ones who know what is really going on, see ‘school’ as the first step towards the freedom which they crave.

But every school is different because the influence which such constituencies exert can vary widely from school to school and the headteacher, whose job it is to keep the tensions created in some kind of equilibrium, must decide how much and what kind of attention must be given to each.

How much must Governors be listened to?  To rank and file governors probably very little, but to the Chairman a good deal (though even Chairmen have been known to be erratic!)

In the case of the staff, a Headteacher will listen very attentively to some and less so to others.  But which ones and which others?  One’s own judgement and that of a reliable deputy will be the best guides.

Unless he or she is very unlucky, the majority of parents will give a new Head little trouble.  They will know from their own experience of bringing up a family that the foundation of any successful community is trust and will guess, correctly, that a Head has to be half parent and half king.  But a few will enjoy making a fuss and they, like one or two of their counterparts on the staff, will have to be brought into line -  preferably by the exertion of peer pressure but in the last resort by confrontation.  And this should be the very last resort.

And the pupils?   Well, a modern school has to be large, if only for financial reasons, and a Head will be very fortunate, and very exceptional, if he or she knows all their names.  So each Head must decide whether or not to establish a School Council if one does not already exist, and again the senior staff will be the best advisers as to what form it should take and what weight it should be given.

When I became an headmaster, a long time ago, I was surprised by the comparatively few initiatives I needed to take, at least during the early years.  More suggestions came from the staff than I had supposed possible and my job was to respond with a ‘no’ only if really good reasons existed for doing so, but otherwise with a ‘yes, but…’ which enabled me to introduce my own views.  What I also discovered very quickly was that a Head, like a parent, was judged less by what he or she said and did and more by what he or she was perceived to be.

This discovery led me to the formulation of my five Golden Rules, which I now set down in writing for the first time and for what they may be worth.

1.  Keep fit.

2.  Keep solvent.

3.  Keep cheerful.

4.  Keep in touch.

And, most important of all,

5.  Keep out of the way.

by Nick Earle

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