Martin Stephen: 'It's madness for Ed Balls to say that heads are mere bureaucrats'

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Ed Balls' panacea for failing schools and government debt is to propose new "chains of schools, run by a single overall leadership". As part of this plan, up to 3,000 senior posts, including heads and deputies, could be axed, he says. This should be knocked firmly on the head, like a road-kill animal that needs to be put out of its agony as soon as possible.

The Schools Secretary believes heads and deputies are not front-line staff, and are mere "bureaucrats". This is madness. The huge influx of people into teaching in the late 1960s and 1970s who are now retiring means a swing towards a much younger average age. At such a time, experience – and the calm that comes from having been around the block a few times – are crucial, perhaps more important than they have ever been. It is precisely these people Ed Balls is determined to remove, an economic decision, not an educational one.

He clearly totally misunderstands what most heads and deputies do. If he wants to extend the military analogy, among the roles that heads and deputies cover are front-line soldier; casualty clearing station; paramedic; commissariat; judiciary; recruiting officer (pupils); recruiting officer (staff); chaplain; spokesman, training officer; health and safety officer; and, of course, general.

There are few successful "chains of schools" operating in either the maintained or independent sector. Independent education justifies itself in part by its freedom from fashion, and its ability to stick to tried and tested methods. It also pays its own piper, and is not in financial thrall to the Government of the day. One result is that its management structures are, by and large, efficient and cost-effective, and spend the money that the job requires.

It seems, therefore, quite remarkable that the management structure proposed by Ed Balls for maintained schools, whereby schools are merged into federations with one overarching head, is – with very few exceptions – not found in the independent sector. Perhaps he looked at the Haberdashers' Aske's scheme in the maintained sector, or the King Edward's Birmingham foundation that contains both private and maintained schools. If so, he clearly needs to change his reading glasses.

Existing federations do not replace local heads, but add on an overarching figure. The local heads have significant autonomy within their individual schools. Judging by the numbers of existing heads that the Schools Secretary is determined to lose, the new federation head will replace existing heads, not augment them. Common sense suggests it will be a disaster.

First, successful heads are willing to listen. They are also driving, focussed and take ownership of the school they run. They are a concentrate. Dilute them across numerous schools and you take away the focus and the concentration that makes them good. The new federation heads will have to be surrounded by a new bevy of secretaries and people who actually do the day-to-day running of the schools. They will inevitably become far more difficult to see, for parents, staff and pupils, and distanced from their consumers.

A great Victorian headmaster explained his success by saying: "I get about". The federation heads will not be able to stop Kevin in the corridor and ask why his arm is in a sling, or ask Charlotte whether she finally chose history or biology GCSE. The heads will be lucky if they know the name of any pupils, and the closest Kevin, Charlotte or their parents will get to him or her is to jump aside as their car sweeps down the drive to one or seven of their other schools. Much of a head's job is fire-fighting.

The real test of a head's mettle – the pupil whose whole career hangs in the balance, the parents about to sue the school, the member of staff undergoing a personal crisis – takes time. Will the federation head be able to wait until the person in the study has stopped crying? How much actual knowledge of a school will the federation head be able to acquire? Ed Balls' idea envisages a concept of headship in which the head is simply a business manager. Many people believe successful headship is more about managing people than managing numbers. Successful heads hear the tune of their school, learn to go with the grain as well as to challenge it. They manage organically, not mechanically, and they never make the mistake of assuming that two schools are the same.

And what about succession? Most heads learn their trade as deputies. Where will these superheads learn theirs if so many posts are to be axed? Balls is cutting off their supply root. Size matters in education.

The writer is high master of St Paul's School for boys, London