Keven Bartle is the Headteacher of Canons High School in Edgware, NW London, which is a Teaching School as part of the Canons Park Alliance. He is a lifelong Labour supporter from one of the few remaining bastions of Labour support, the North East. He tweets as @kevbartle, blogs here and does so in very much a personal capacity.
Watching the furore surrounding the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party and the tumultuous first week he has had in that role, it got me thinking about my own feisty first weeks as Headteacher a year ago. By extension, that got me wondering how his current challenges might compare to that of a newly-appointed Headteacher.
The first, and most obvious, contrast to draw would be the notion that the mythical Headteacher Corbyn finds himself in the role having never held a position on an SLT, nor even as a Head of Department or other middle leader. That’s a big leap to make. Suddenly he finds himself responsible not just for the policies he enacts, but for the finances, the media relations, the links with other Headteachers, and a myriad of other logistically and legally labrythine structures and systems that come as part of the job.
Added to that, Headteacher Jeremy has had to contend with the sudden and en masse resignation of many of his leadership team and key middle leaders, necessitating the need for him to appoint a significant number of others who, like him, have held virtually no leadership responsibilities. Some of these are colleagues fresh out of their NQT year, and all have to acquaint themselves rapidly with their respective briefs in a school that is, at best, requires improvement. And although a full Ofsted inspection lies a distant five years away, there will be masses of monitoring visits to contend with, some of which are imminent (not least of which is whether to remain within the local authority of the EU, or to go it alone as an academy).
Not at all unexpectedly, the former Headteachers Blair and Brown (with whom Headteacher Corbyn had a distinctly uneasy relationship – they would happily have hoisted him ‘off the bus’) have used their influence with staff and parents to undermine his proposed vision for the school, arguing that it will undo all their reforms from the National Strategies era: incessant target-setting and rigorous monitoring in particular.
Of course, the local media have picked up on this and are enjoying playing to gallery of parents’ fears that a movement from a standards agenda to one rooted in values will, by necessity, see a further decline in standards. They would rather see the Labour Comprehensive swallow ever more of the medicine/koolaid and deepen their dependency on it. After all, if the Tory Academy down the road has done so well taking that tonic then it must be working, right?
Most notable about Headteacher Jeremy’s mandate is the fact that his success was not the result of SLT and Governor deliberations, but the now-so-obvious outcome of a deliciously democratic staffroom ballot. Fed up of years (nay decades) of learning walks, book scrutinies, graded observations, mockable mocksteds, inauthentic consultations and dreaded diktats, the newly-empowered educators finally had an opportunity to vote with their hands rather than their feet, and boy did they do so!
And the outcomes of this seemingly-outlandish appointment so far? Pupil numbers are significantly up already, arresting the sharply declining roll that was the product of the perceived purposelessness of the previous pedagogies under the aforementioned erstwhile Heads, and there is a strong (if still amorphous) vision being formed that threatens to inspire and despair in almost equal measure.
But if a week is a long time in education (as in politics), five years is almost an eternity. Headteacher Corbyn needs to back up his virtuous vision and romantic rhetoric with promising policies and resounding results (and not only in terms of pupil outcomes, although he must know that that is a given). He needs to mobilise those who entrusted him in this role, but also win over those who didn’t by building upon their strengths: a big tent rather than a big bus approach is necessary and would do more to set him apart from his predecessors than anything else he does.
Within two years he needs to have the Labour Comprehensive humming with a vibrant and potent energy if he is to have any hope of leading a magnificent MAT (as opposed to the charity-less Chain that currently dominates the educational and social landscape of this borough) by 2020. Whether he sings along to the words of the school hymn as he does so is utterly irrelevant.