New head, new rules

I don’t normally comment on matters outside Music teaching but the recent controversy concerning a certain school in Great Yarmouth has made me think hard about leadership and how you would go about starting a new culture, especially in a place where the culture has been the complete opposite of the new regime.

Basically, when the new headteacher of this school in Great Yarmouth cofounded a free school in London a few years previously he was able to start a school culture from scratch as there was no existing school.  With fantastic colleagues and a clear vision, they were able to create an outstanding, trailblazing school.  The headteacher’s new school is a completely new kettle of fish.  How do you start a new culture in a school which already exists?

I wish him well, I really do.  Everything I have been told about this man is that he is a fantastic teacher, a good leader but it does seem that he can go a little bit too far when it comes to school rules and has been a little bit clumsy when communicating to parents and the public.  A little bit of context – the Great Yarmouth school has had poor prior results, not great discipline and an unfavorable OFSTED report.  So he wants to tackle the problems and his solution is something that most teachers would accept – making sure all students are in their chair in class, not out in the corridors messing around and ensuring that children are listening to the teacher, being polite and respectful and working hard.  Where this headteacher has come unstuck is he is actually spelling out what this may mean in practice and how serious he is.  Hence the talk about sick buckets in classrooms and stopping children from going to the toilet whenever they like.  By spelling all of this out he is making enemies and my fear is that he will be forced out with a big cheer and the school going back to failing its students.  There is nothing progressive about poor standards of work, results and behaviour and the nastiness from some sections of the teaching profession towards this man is absolutely appalling.  

There are some rules that I personally think are a bit harsh.  There are some which would have resulted in me getting a detention if I was at school.  But staying in your seat, listening to the teacher, getting your work done on time and walking around the school politely and sensibly is not unreasonable and the headteacher has every right to enforce the school rules.  I hope there will not be screaming and shouting and the humiliation of students (and parents) but in the end, I do not work at a tough, failing school and how you would turn one around is certainly not in my imagination.  I guess the big question would be whether I would send my daughter to this school.  And the answer is I simply would have moved house into a catchment with a good school.  But if in five years he has achieved his aim and the school has been turned around, then I would be much more willing to think about it.  Call me names for my unsupportive attitude but I certainly would not be the only one who is unprepared to send my children to an unsuccessful school.  This is why we need to sometimes take a step back and realize that the skill-set for such an upheaval is completely different from leading an already decent school.  

What I find interesting is that it is the motivation behind the rules that points favorably or unfavorably to the leader.  I know some terrible leaders who have many rules which are there to make themselves feel powerful and to have complete control over students, staff and parents.  But other leaders have many rules because they genuinely believe that it will benefit their students and turn their school around.  The mistake that many have made concerning this school in Great Yarmouth is that they think the new headteacher is on a power trip.  One way we can guess his motivations is by looking at his past actions.  Another is to see how he will treat his staff and what autonomy he will give them to do their jobs.  And from the words of his old students and colleagues we need to give him a chance because they think the world of him and believe he is genuinely trying his best to improve this school.

Will he succeed?  Sadly, I am going to say “no”.  I don’t think he has much chance.  I think he will be very successful starting new schools from scratch but to change an existing culture is incredibly challenging.  You can expel a dozen students and enforce rules but you cannot change hearts that readily.  The reason his old school was successful is they had the buy in from students, parents and teachers from day one.  I really hope I am wrong but we ought to wish him and his new school well rather than wanting him sacked for doing something that most of us would not even attempt to try. 

So the question is when do we speak out?  So many teachers have condemned this man, his rules and the way he has communicated them.  They say he is unfit to run a school.  That he should not be in the teaching profession.  That he is a right-wing fascist.  In the end his biggest sin is rather than say something like “all students must sit in their seat”, he’s detailing the excuses that some children make for leaving it and why he thinks these are unacceptable and what he will do about it if you try to take him on.  I wish I could say that kids would not do this but we all know that in tough schools there are children who will go completely out of the way to challenge authority and do as little work as possible.  He has chosen to not just say the easy things but explain what he is going to do.  Some of this may be bluster or hyperbole.  We don’t really know and he might not know himself how far he is going to go if he suspects a child with medical problems is really trying to skive off and play Candy Crush on their secret, illegal mobile phone on the toilet.  I think the only time we have a right to criticize is if this headteacher breaks the law or we suspect he is about to break it.

Let’s give a big thumbs up to all those teachers working in tricky circumstances and try to support each other, even when we disagree.  

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