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Chris McGovern: ‘Super-heads’ are all spin and no substance


It seems that so-called school ‘super-heads’ are not so super after all. A research study from the Centre for High Performance has concluded that those head teachers who are paid the most money or given the most recognition often wreak the most long-term damage on schools.

“As they take their haloes with them, they can sometimes leave behind a trail of destruction as the miraculous improvements go into bone-crunching reverse,” one of the report’s authors told The Times… “These heads create the illusion of improvement by cutting poor performing students, focusing resources on final year students, and using ‘tough measures’ to make students and teachers work harder…they woefully neglect children further down the school, exhaust the teachers and do little for the community.”

As with so much in education these days, what you see is not what you get. In a reverse of the popular television advertising slogan, any highly publicised school improvement initiative does not always do what it says on the tin. Ditto, of course, for the new National Curriculum, the revised GCSE and A-Level exams and the general re-branding of teachers into the ‘super-teacher’ role of  ‘learning facilitators’.

Last year, I was one of the speakers in a debate on education at the University of Cambridge. Up against me was one of these ‘super-heads’. He was a persuasive, articulate and intelligent school leader whose work has been much praised and revered by the current government. What surprised me, though, was his response to my suggestion that children are best educated in line with their aptitude and their ability. He was appalled by the idea and claimed that such teaching would amount to educational discrimination. He was strongly backed by his co-speaker, a senior figure from the esteemed graduate teacher recruitment agency, ‘Teach First”.

Mixed ability teaching and, indeed, mixed ability examinations such as GCSE, are close to holy writ amongst many within the educational establishment, the ‘Blob’. It explains the hostility towards grammar schools and the strange lack of grammar school heads classified in the ‘super’ category.

So who then does make the grade into that elite category? Jean Else was one. She, apparently, turned around a failing comprehensive school in Manchester in spectacular fashion and was awarded a damehood. Following allegations made by the Audit Commission and a lengthy investigation by Manchester City Council she was dismissed and her damehood, subsequently, revoked. Sajid Raza was another super-head, of sorts. His free school was lauded by David Cameron on a visit in 2012, but in September of this year Mr. Raza was jailed for fraud. According to the Daily Mail, another ‘super-head’, Sir Greg Martin, “earned almost £400,000 in one year while running side businesses from his former school” and “ was criticised by the Commons public accounts committee last year for appearing to run an ‘inappropriate’ dating website and a private health club from the site of Durand Academy in South London.”

Other ‘super-heads’, too, have hit the headlines for the wrong reasons but most, of course,  operate without personal blemish. Their short-term successes, however, too often prove to be transitory. “We found leaders who talk a good game,” the new report concludes, “but have no impact; leaders who make everything look great while they’re there, but everything falls apart after they leave.”

The most successful head teachers turn out to be those “leaders who are more concerned with the legacy they leave than how things look whilst they’re there.” This is a conclusion that might, equally, apply to those charged with running our education system at government level.

(Image: Aly1963)

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Chris McGovern
Chris McGovern
Chris McGovern is the Chairman of the Campaign for Real Education. A retired head teacher with 35 years’ teaching experience, Chris is a former advisor to the Policy Unit at 10 Downing Street under two Prime Ministers.

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