Catherine the Great Headmistress

Personally Speaking By Joan Clanchy `Mrs Lindsay hadn't been to school herself, but had a vision of how a school should be'
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The Independent Online
When I was appointed head of St George's School for Girls in Edinburgh in 1975, I wore a hat and gloves to the interview. No one mentioned the word "management"; I had not done so either, in my one-page CV and accompanying short, handwritten letter. I had, in fact, not much notion of what a head did after taking assembly in the morning. My instruction was to come largely from my predecessor at St George's, Mrs Jean Lindsay. Mrs Lindsay had never been to school herself; she was a general's daughter, governess- educated, who had a clear vision of how schools should be.

Catherine the Great of Russia offered a model ("though without the lovers"): one must understand that a head was surrounded by small-minded enemies who must be kept at a distance and rendered powerless. One must not allow cabals to form. All authority must be in the head's hands. (A great deal of work was to fall to those hands, too.) Thesecond mistress had a special table in the staff room, but no one but the head had an office.

Mrs Lindsay constructed the school timetable during the summer holidays and presented it to the staff on the first day of the September term, allowing not a minute for protest: apparently a very Catherine-the-Great- like move. I sweated through the hot summer of 1976 to achieve the same trick.

School uniform is a potent symbol. Mrs Lindsay designed one that would be truly adult: blue Harris tweed coat and skirt, pale blue jersey and red cardigan. She launched this outfit, which was spot-on for 1958, in 1968, had a complete set made for herself and wore it constantly. Her aim was to show that it was ordinary grown-up kit and she deduced that as no one, not even the chairman of governors, mentioned it to her, no one had found it exceptional. I suspect, rather, that no one had found the words.

The head was the chief teacher, Mrs Lindsay explained; like Henry V, she should lead the troops in the daily battle. The head must teach the best lessons. In her study she kept various cloaks and plaids for dressing up, in order to sweep into classes in the role of Rob Roy, McGregor or Queen Victoria.

She taught 16 periods a week and knew personally every one of the 750 girls. She kept a packet of Smarties in her pocket and, if ever she faltered over a girl's name, she gave her one; but it did not happen often.

For parents she had less time: her attitude to them was clear in the school prospectus (written and designed by Mrs Lindsay). The prospectus was largely a list of what you could not do and should not ask to do ("more than two sciences unbalance a sound curriculum"). It had instructions about appropriate bedtimes, and what to do in the case of scarlet fever. To me she gave some tips on techniques with parents: public audiences like Louis XIV were advised; be gracious, but do not linger, and keep them moving. Parent-teacher consultations were set up in the large hall in an oval configuration, with Mrs Lindsay at the centre. After four minutes she would ping a bell, and the parents had to move on.

In office, one comes to know one's predecessor intimately. The files were full of Mrs Lindsay' letters and notes for her speeches; the shape that she left me to fill seemed to me beyond that of any mortal. She would have had no need of the advantages of a word processor because, like Jane Austen, she wrote perfect prose in the first draft. She dealt swiftly and incisively with failing teachers. There was one letter to a weaker sister written in August, giving clear instructions on how to control her classes in the coming term. It was crisp, dry and clear: a classroom map was recommended to master names; the task for the lesson should be on the board; the teacher should stand by the door at the beginning to control both the girls in the room and those coming along the corridor. The next letter in the file showed that the advice had not been successful: in November the appointment was ended for December, and another occupation was recommended. The time scale is the one that our new, enlightened despot, David Blunkett, has in mind.

After leaving the shadow of Mrs Lindsay, my training was further entrenched in despotic ways because I moved to be head of North London Collegiate School under the shadow of the great Victorian pioneer, Frances Mary Buss. She had required her staff to sign a contract "to do anything the headmistress requires". The management revolution of the Eighties caught me ill-prepared. I had to try to unlearn all that these ladies had taught me, because the Catherine the Great model is the reverse of recommended management practice. It has no line management, no consideration of equal "stakeholders"; it relies on charisma and the cult of the personality.

Of course, the new ways are sensible, and management teams share the work. But I have never shaken off Mrs Lindsay's instructions. When I have to spend a day out of school or in the office, I feel guilty, because she told me my place was in the classroom. I still look at the scripts of all the internal examinations, because she said that kept one in touch. I still give a book to each leaving sixth-former, because Mrs Lindsay said that everyone must have a prize.

Mrs Lindsay's memorial service was packed out last summer, and I retire this one. We are a generation who have gone. David Blunkett's new qualification for heads is a much-needed development, and I am sorry it was not there for me. But there was vision and clarity about the Catherine the Great model. It certainly saved time, and it was often very good funn

The writer is head of North London Collegiate School for Girls.

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