Superheads with super salaries, but we've forgotten their deputies

I don't know how bad things really are at Crown Woods comprehensive in Eltham, south-east London, the "failing" school about to be taken on by 46-year-old Michael Murphy, who in doing so becomes the highest-paid head in the country. But I do know what it's like to be in a school that's on the ropes.

I don't know how bad things really are at Crown Woods comprehensive in Eltham, south-east London, the "failing" school about to be taken on by 46-year-old Michael Murphy, who in doing so becomes the highest-paid head in the country. But I do know what it's like to be in a school that's on the ropes.

In its worst moments, the inner-city secondary I taught in teetered on the edge of anarchy. Every so often, after lunch, a handful of various no-hopers would drift back to school on a cloud of glue fumes and marijuana smoke to wreak disruption on their lessons and run riot in the corridors, setting off fire alarms and banging on windows. It would quickly become clear that for a time, at least, order had broken down and it was every man for himself, and that there was nothing much anyone could do but pray for the end-of-day bell. Anyone who can turn round a school where interludes like that have become part of the culture, certainly deserves to be respected - and well paid.

But last week's news that Mr Murphy - who made laudable improvements at the Hurlingham and Chelsea School - is to receive £90,000 a year to tackle Crown Woods draws us up short. We shall soon have the hundred thou' head - and even then, say independent management consultants, they ought to get £20,000 more, along with a performance-related bonus.

The salaries of frontline teachers, meanwhile - without whom no school can even operate, let alone flourish - bump along at the bottom.

If heads are to be paid twice or even thrice the salaries they earned two years ago, then either something was wrong then, something is wrong now, or something big must have altered in the meanwhile.

One thing that has changed in the past few years is that we have become more aware of the kind and scale of pressurefaced by heads of tough schools. We all remember television footage of the Ridings School in Halifax, where youngsters, when not rioting or vandalising, were making V-signs to the cameras behind the back of the head teacher. We know what Philip Lawrence, the north London head, must have been keeping at bay: a culture that ultimately broke through his charismatic regime at knifepoint and killed him.

And those of us who saw last Thursday's BBC2 programme, Head on the Block, discovered the problems faced by Torsten Friedag at the re-branded Islington Arts and Media School. At £70,000, he was last year's highest-paid head. Whatever mistakes he might have made, it would have been a rare person who could have coped with what he encountered.

What has changed even more is the way that we have been expected to look upon the schools. That Mr Friedag had failed to grasp this was clear from his choice of music at his introductory assembly: "I get by with a little help from my friends". "Penny Lane" might have been nearer the mark. Education today is more about money than friendship, and the hike in head teachers' salaries is a sign of it.

Mr Murphy's words to reporters last week are rather more in tune with the spirit of the educational age: "Schools are essentially businesses," he said. If anyone feels inclined to challenge that definition and suggest that a school is essentially a learning community, let him remember that Mr Murphy is doubly qualified to comment on what makes schools successful today. Not only is he the highest-paid head in the land, but Ofsted calls his present school one of the most improved in the country. Pupils at Crown Woods will no doubt come to be grateful to him for statistically improving their life chances.

It's just a shame that when figures - whether they relate to pounds and pence or GCSE passes - are the only measure of success that matters, a lot that is important gets lost. Schools from which it is difficult to turn out statistics proving that they conform to the contemporary definition of success have to offer ever higher salaries to encourage heads to take on the real risk of failure. Their underpaid teachers, meanwhile - who have to put their reforms into effect - have to work harder, and just hope for the best. Salaries of £100,000 and more might not be too much for some of today's heads, but it might well be a sign that we are expecting too much from our schools altogether.

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