Super-heads are a super-huge mistake

How many more resignations from super-heads do we need till we realise the system of parachuting top teachers into failing schools is a recipe for corruption?

7 December 2013

9:00 AM

7 December 2013

9:00 AM

Another month, so it seems, another super-head rolls. Not that many would have noticed the latest. Greg Wallace’s resignation as executive head teacher of five schools in the east London borough of Hackney was drowned out by the hubbub surrounding the Revd Paul Flowers. Yet the departure of Wallace — much lamented by pupils and their parents, according to tributes in the local newspaper — deserves a closer look.

For Wallace was not just any top teacher. As one of the Education Secretary’s so-called ‘Magnificent Seven’, he was a living, breathing advertisement for super-headship — the idea that particularly dynamic and gifted members of the teaching profession can be airlifted out of their particular success stories and parachuted in to work their magic in failing schools.

Being a super-head brings big rewards — in honours as well as cash. But they have not been without controversy. The concept was introduced by the last Labour government, then played down after a spate of difficulties and resignations in the early 2000s, only to be revived by Michael Gove. And in October, the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, proposed creating a new super-league of super-teachers, ready to answer the call.

This makes Wallace’s resignation, in the closing stages of an investigation into claims about IT contracts awarded to a company run by his boyfriend, especially inopportune. But it is not the only bad augury. A few weeks ago, the long and sorry saga of Sir Alan Davies, the erstwhile super-head of Copland School in north-west London, reached its conclusion at Southwark Crown Court. Conspiracy-to-defraud charges were dropped, but Sir Alan — who was knighted for services to education — pleaded guilty to six counts of false accounting and received a 12-month prison sentence, suspended by the judge in the light of his otherwise illustrious achievements. Local moves are afoot to have him stripped of his honour.

This is what happened to Jean Else, another of the super-head clan, who had her damehood revoked by the Queen two years ago, after being banned from ever running a school again. In the early 2000s, Else had propelled Manchester’s Whalley Range High School for Girls up the league tables with almost miraculous speed. Although the police decided it would not be in the public interest to prosecute, the charge sheet that brought her down included nepotism, irregular recruitment (making her twin sister her deputy) and dubious payments. Her own pay doubled in four years.

There are others. Jo Shuter, named the country’s best head teacher in 2007 for her success at the Quintin Kynaston Academy in north London, was to experience a similarly dramatic rise and fall. She resigned earlier this year, following a Department for Education inquiry that found she had used the school’s money on expensive hotels, failed to declare business links with suppliers, and claimed travel expenses that ‘could amount to fraud’. In another twist, she was recently confirmed as interim head of King Solomon School in east London, an appointment not universally welcomed by parents.

Then there is Richard Gilliland, who resigned his super-head post in Lincolnshire a year ago after government auditors found that money intended for the four schools he presided over had been spent on hi-tech gadgets, antiques, an equestrian centre, and a £2 million recreation complex in Normandy. He had also put family members on the payroll, including his son, a convicted ‘flasher’.

Now it might be said that the loss of five prominent super-heads in as many years is not too bad going, though there have been others who have resigned with less fanfare. It might also be said that the high pay enjoyed by this special brand of teacher might make them the object of envious and malevolent reporting. But what is striking, over more than ten years of the super-head phenomenon, is how much those who have ‘gone bad’ have in common.

No one has suggested that these heads were not good teachers or, at the outset at least, that they did not make real improvements. The problem seems to be that, as super-heads, they faced temptations to which they had the freedom to succumb. They had generous budgets which were essentially theirs to spend; they could recruit, tender for services and make vital decisions with scant oversight; their exalted status allowed them to railroad things through.

Indeed, the very qualities that made them good, even excellent, teachers and leaders — strength of character, concern for those in their care, an inclination to didacticism — may have given them an unrealistic sense of what was not just possible, but ethical and legal.

It could also be argued that the same character traits that made them stand out as potential super-heads and disposed them to accept the job also held the seeds of their downfall: the desire for a higher profile and a higher salary and the savvy to deliver what the bosses require (targets and the like) by almost any means.

Either way, the pattern of misconduct among these super-heads is now too consistent to be ignored. This is not a matter of a few bad eggs; it reflects an impossible job description that is attracting the wrong sort of people to run our schools.

By way of a footnote, here is a ‘disclosure’. I come from a family of teachers and my late father’s career might be pertinent here. He exemplified the hoary adage that ‘those who can’t, teach; and those who can’t teach, teach teachers to teach’ — which is how, he might have joked, he became principal of a major teacher training college (without a teaching qualification to his name).

Before this, though, he had been one of the youngest head teachers in the country, entrusted with a brand-new grammar school, which grew into a noted success. Today, his youth and particular strengths might well have identified him as ‘super-head’ material. I fancy he would have resisted the call, not for fear of failure, but because he would have felt that a school was no place for a super-head. Rather than inflate the job in an effort to reverse failure, I think he would have preferred to shrink the school.

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  • manonthebus

    I have never believed in super -this or super -that. These people are not superhuman and rarely justify either the salaries or the praise lavished upon them. What is required in all things is reasonably intelligent people with common sense and decent staff. Dedication is the key to most successes and flashy gimmicks never work for long.

  • Liberty

    Nobody really knows what works in any field. That is why 80% of firms fail in their first year and 80% of the survivors fail in the second year. So, the only way to find out what works is to make schools independent, work in a market where schools are paid per pupil, can set any entrance criteria they like so long it is not on race, wealth, residence, etc. and have exams that are independently, nationally, anonymously and rigourously set and marked.