Mary Dejevsky: The cult of charismatic leadership has gone too far

To lionise individuals is asking for trouble. It encourages schools to become even bigger, along with their heads' already more than adequate egos
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The Independent Online

The New Year of 2001 was a time of rejoicing and congratulations for Jean Else. She was made a Dame in recognition of her services to education. This week that honour was revoked. "The Queen," it was recorded in the clinically bureaucratic language of such pronouncements, "has directed that the appointment of Jean Else to be a Dame Commander of the Civil Division of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, dated 30 December 2000, shall be cancelled and annulled and that her name shall be erased from the Register of the said Order."

It is not every day that the Queen takes away an honour she has bestowed; there might even be an argument for her doing so a little more often. But Jean Else's disgrace should be of more than passing interest, over and above its rarity. Now 59, she was an early member of the New Labour club of super-heads – headteachers singled out and paid a lot of money to become beacons who light the way for their less successful peers.

Else's achievement was to have turned Manchester's Whalley Range High School for Girls from one where only 16 per cent of pupils managed five good GCSEs into an establishment described as one of the top state schools. For a school whose catchment area abuts Moss Side – it also happened to have nurtured Estelle, now Baroness, Morris, but that's by the by – this was no mean feat.

Unfortunately for her, 2001 probably marked the high point of Jean Else's career. The following year, there was a spate of allegations concerning nepotism, questionable payments and irregular recruiting which led to her suspension in 2004. She was dismissed two years later, and in 2009 banned from running a school anywhere ever again. The loss of her damehood completes the humiliation.

Some of the charges upheld against Else in disciplinary hearings sound duly shocking – though the police deemed that it would not be in the public interest to prosecute. There was the friend she had employed as a consultant, and her twin sister whom she appointed to a clerical post and promoted to be her deputy on a salary of almost £60,000 – while her own pay went from £76,000 to £141,000 in four years. On the basis of this information alone, it would be easy just to brand Else something of a bad egg who somehow slipped through the selection net and deceived parents and governors until she was finally rumbled.

But is it, I wonder, so simple? Just a story of a weak individual tempted to spread a little of her good fortune around her friends? Or might there perhaps be some flaw in the system that runs a bit deeper? You don't need to delve very far to find more examples of aspersions cast on super-heads.

Elsewhere in Manchester an academy super-head and his deputy were suspended for falsifying attendance figures – one key gauge used to measure a school's success. A year ago the London borough of Brent referred one of their super-heads, Sir Alan Davies – another education knight – to the police over allegations of extra payments and unlawful bonuses amounting to at least £600,000.

Sir Alan, who resigned from Copland School in Wembley before a disciplinary hearing suspended him, strenuously denies any wrongdoing. Also in London, Mark Elms, the super-head of Tidemill Primary in Lewisham, faced public questions over a pay package that exceeded £200,000, but he survived, thanks to the support of parents and governors.

Not all the questions hanging over super-heads entail allegations of actual law-breaking or even ethics violations. And the way in which these cases tend to come to light – through third-party information – suggests that an element of professional jealousy may come into play. The financial rewards for super-heads, compared with ordinary head teachers, place them in a pay bracket all of their own.

The teachers' unions, whose attitude to super-heads might at best be described as cool, may also be less inclined to protect super-heads when they come under scrutiny than they might be if charges of irregularities related to rank-and-file colleagues. So it may be that the whiff of scandal surrounding super-heads is distorted. Certainly, there are rapturous accounts of the way individual heads are transforming single, or groups of, schools.

Yet the cases that become public for negative reasons share some conspicuous features: a strong ego; a lot of money washing around at the top of the school, and a somewhat cavalier attitude to authority and rules. Which then prompts the question of whether there might not be something about the role of super-head, as it was conceived, that amplifies such traits and behaviour.

To head a school at all demands certain qualities, which do not necessarily include being a competent manager in the accepted, or commercial, sense – for all the efforts that have been made in recent years to train budding heads in such skills. The very best heads exhibit the same characteristics they always have: an air, and an enjoyment, of authority; a commitment to the task in hand (educating the next generation), and strength of character, which need not exclude an element of eccentricity.

The difficulty is that such individuals are always going to be in short supply, and to lionise them is asking for trouble. It encourages others to mimic the qualities that are in demand, and it encourages schools to become even bigger – along with their heads' already more than adequate egos. By preferring charisma to authority, worshipping at the altar of the role model, and waiving rules – on money, for instance – that less special teachers must observe, this government and the last have blurred the boundaries of the permissible.

Star culture, of course, exists almost everywhere in the modern world, from business to entertainment and back again. I just doubt whether it has the place it is increasingly being given in the management and ethos of our schools.