Monday, June 18, 2007

Guiding Principal?

‘I feel it is wise to behave in her presence’. Unfortunately that set the tone for Leo Benedictus’ breathless profile of executive head teacher Catherine Myers in Saturday’s edition of Guardian Work.

Myers runs the Bishop Challoner Catholic Collegiate School in Tower Hamlets, it is one of the first ‘federated’ schools comprising separate girls’ and boys’ schools and a co-educational sixth form. With 1,500 pupils it has 40% of children on Free School meals and 27% are on the special education needs register.

During her fifteen years as head Myers claims to have ‘turned the school around’, certainly the test results are testimony to that, in 1992 only 13% of boys gained 5 GCSEs A-C, last year it was 86%.

There is of course that stereotype that journalists are just complacent hacks who faithfully regurgitate everything that is told them by people in authority without even bothering to research basic facts. I don’t actually know Leo Benedictus, but after reading his article I’m veering towards that particular character profile. How do many faith schools improve results? By selecting their pupils. The overall figure for Free School Meals in Tower Hamlets is 65.5%, some way above Bishop Challoner’s 40%, also an article in ‘The Times’ points out that the four church schools in the borough take only 3% Bangladeshi children, in surrounding schools the figure is 90%, so much for integration.

Research by the Institute for Public Policy Research compared the progress of pupils in 3,000 secondary schools in England with the social make-up of their local area. It found that faith schools were the least reflective of their local area. They were nearly 10 times more likely to have a higher proportion of able pupils than their local area might suggest.

Leo Bendictus’ interview carried some interesting insights into the regime at Bishop Challoner, Myers admitted that the target was king, “I set very hard-edged targets, yes. And I’m uncomfortable if things are not going right.” Every year, class and child have individual targets.

Myers reckoned that she worked 15 – 16 hours a day. The list of duties was frightening – meetings with staff, parents, builders, governors, psychologists, social workers, assemblies to run every day in two different schools, budgets and targets to set and manage, furniture to choose, caterers to handle, staff to hire, fire and review. Think they missed the children out but what the hell.

The article really should have come with a health warning, if the bold Leo had conducted some basic research on head teachers what would he have found? Head teacher vacancies attract on average only 5.4 applicants and then 27% of schools have to readvertise so poor are the potential candidates. Where are there record shortages? Catholic secondary schools in London.

A quarter of female head teachers live on their own and loneliness and isolation is a major factor in inhibiting women from applying and for early retirements. A survey by the General Teaching Council found that only 4% of teachers wanted to apply for a headship in five years time.

Former national president John Illingworth stunned the NUT Conference last year when he described how he had been forced to apply for early retirement as headteacher due to the effects of stress partly as a result of long hours. In an interview with the TES he revealed, “There were a few weeks at the end where I was really unwell, mentally I couldn’t take decisions, couldn’t prioritise. On one occasion I was almost tempted to grab hold of a kid. I was quite emotional at sometimes, and you can’t be bursting into tears when you’re dealing with a stroppy child. At my worst last winter, I couldn’t cope… I had to wait in the car park. My character changed from being easygoing to being quite difficult. One of my sons reckons it has been 10 years since I have been myself.”

Is Catherine Myers a good role model? For every Catherine Myers there are ten or twenty John Illingworths.

An interesting question is that now the hours that Myers works are well documented, if she suffers a mental illness, depression or alcoholism will she able to sue the governors? I’m sure any compensation lawyer would hold the article up in court and ask the governors why they failed to reduce her hours.

Unwittingly Leo Benedictus has written one of the definitive articles that explains why so few people want to be head teachers. As for the research – Could Do Better.


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