Headteachers 'waste time' on mundane tasks

Headteachers see themselves as leaders, motivating and advising junior colleagues, closely involved in the classroom but also able to develop the curriculum and introduce new ideas.

Sadly, this vision is largely fantasy. According to researchers at Loughborough University, headteachers actually waste much of their time on boring, trivial and irrelevant tasks.

A study of diaries kept by 25 Staffordshire primary headteachers exposed the cavernous and often ludicrous gap between what they think their job is and how they really spend their time.

Derek Lever, a primary headteacher, and Derek Blease, of Loughborough University's department of education, concluded that heads spend a large proportion of their time on mundane, low-value tasks and day-to-day management of the building.

They spend far more time dealing with the caretaker than developing the curriculum - indeed there was hardly any mention of the latter in their diaries. If they do teach at all it is to provide emergency cover, not well- planned, innovative lessons.

The headteachers' reaction to their findings apparently ranged from shocked disbelief to 'You've confirmed my worst fears]'

For their paper, What do Primary Headteachers Really do?, published in Educational Studies, the researchers interviewed teachers, parents, governors and education authority officials on what they thought the role of headteacher ought to be. They also asked headteachers themselves to estimate the 'ideal' and 'actual' amounts of time they spend on different actvities.

The heads interviewed thought they ought to be spending about two hours a day teaching and two hours dealing with colleagues, including staff meetings, about an hour devoted to parents and only one hour a week on other 'mundane matters'. They allocated the remainder of a notional 35 hour week to administration - ideally half an hour a week - dealing with visitors or local authority officials and non-teaching staff.

In practice they conceded that they spent rather less time teaching (six hours a week) or with staff and more time (half an hour a day) on mundane tasks. Administration took up an hour a day but they were still under the impression that their day included an hour to themselves for meal breaks or planning.

'Clearly the reality is very different from the perception,' the authors comment wryly. The amount of planned teaching heads do is small, their curriculum development activities non-existent - but they still do not have time for lunch. ('What's that?' was one disgruntled diary comment.)

Many of the activities recorded fell outside the nominal 8.45am to 3.45pm school day and some headteachers were working long hours. 'The length of my day is the time it takes me to be no further behind at the end than I was at the beginning,' one groaned.

Mr Lever and Mr Blease concluded: 'The diary evidence indicates that the headteachers are responding to, rather than initiating, events, engaging in a range of activities of which they are either unaware or which they are forced into by circumstances.

'They appear to have little time to plan or organise, having to prioritise tasks without the opportunity to consider them in depth, having to teach more in emergency situations than planned lessons, and having a range of strategies to deal with the day-to-day running of the school.'

The authors are sympathetic to the dilemma headteachers find themselves in at a time when secretarial help is often being reduced and administrative duties vastly increased by taking on responsibility for budgets.

Governors show no appetite for assuming more immediate responsibility for budgets, health and safety or managing the site, and a headteacher cannot afford not to be involved. As in the case of a potential gas leak, the consequences of not making an apparently trivial inquiry could be hazardous.

Often the headteacher is the only person in the school free to perform the mundane tasks that arise. At lunchtimes heads feel vulnerable about the safety and discipline of children left to untrained supervisors.

Confronted with this evidence by Mr Lever and Mr Blease, the headteachers acknowledged its accuracy, but only some of them recognised that they ought to be exploring different ways of doing things, the paper said.

How headteachers spend their day

A selection of typical entries from the diaries of 25 heads:

Saw cleaner about cobwebs. - Investigated a faulty vacuum cleaner and a tap left running in the girls' lavatories (the plug was out). - Watered plants. Sold some tickets for tonight's performance. Made two notices: 'Ladies' and 'Gents'. Fitted light over piano. - Chose colours for external paintwork. Take a card to local clinic - it was left by the nurse. - Helped wipe tables. Threw away flower arrangement. - Took delivery of 30 chairs. - Contractors arrived to fix lavatory seat.