Heads’ subject? All subjective

SUMMIT 39While I was enjoying time with the family over Christmas, and, obviously, eating and drinking too much, The Times reported a Good Schools Guide survey identifying the subject specialisms that seem to produce the best headteachers of independent schools (I don’t know why only independent).

It came out in favour of historians, just ahead of English teachers: predictably, the letters page was full of particular heads or their supporters taking issue with the conclusion and singing the praises (mainly) of chemists and physicists.

I refrained from joining in: but then, I get my chance here. And don’t worry: I reckon it’s about more than merely education, but about leadership myths in general.

In my 25 years as a head, I’ve certainly seen my slice of the profession dominated by historians. They seem to climb the hierarchy with relative ease compared to the rest: I guess their subject training lends them a particular skill in attributing to trends, social attitudes and dissent the sort of anxieties that most of us put down to plain paranoia.

“Infamy! Infamy: They’ve all got it in for me!” as comedian Frankie Howerd used to say. Many of us heads frequently echo that cry: historians might claim to do so less.

My background in music makes me an uncommon head: music teachers have an image problem. The ebullient and enthusiastic music teacher is viewed indulgently as “terribly enthusiastic, but you can’t see him/her running a school”. Meanwhile the contrastingly thoughtful, cerebral musician is seen as too intense, and equally unappointable.

This makes me smile, since leaders of organisations are often compared to the conductor of a professional orchestra who, standing at the centre of activity, is described as pulling together the collective effort, tweaking and adjusting it, focussing the sound and thus, by implication, the vision of the orchestra.

That image is largely tosh: ask any professional musician. And remember, I did a lot of conducting in my time.

Most see conductors as tyrannical, unreasonable, overpaid and frequently useless. Half will admit (only in private) to watching the conductor only rarely: they’re more likely to keep an eye on the leader of the violins, the person who really holds the band together (the equivalent to the Deputy Head in schools, perhaps?).

Next, ask the players who sit at the back of the band. Professional conductors spend much of their time telling the brass instruments, the trumpets and trombones, to play more quietly. For them it becomes a way of life, and a dispiriting one, being forced to play pianissimo all the time, whatever the composer’s instructions in the printed music. One of my oldest friends, studying the trombone at music college years ago, was carpeted by the Principal when, fed up with being instructed by a world-renowned conductor to play quietly, more quietly still, then even more quietly, he and his mates stopped playing altogether.

Moreover, conductors aren’t there all the time. Even an orchestra’s resident Musical Director constantly jets around the world doing other gigs, while guest conductors come in to work with the home team.

I reckon the best classical concert I attended in 2015 was in the Sage Gateshead, where the Royal Northern Sinfonia played a superb programme without any conductor at all: instead they followed their truly inspirational lead violinist, the amazing Bradley Creswick.

That example in itself might appear also neatly to prove my point, but it goes further. The Leader helped to guide the music, certainly: but he was also playing the first violin part (generally accepted as containing more notes to play than any other part), so he couldn’t control every moment. Without someone waving a stick for them to keep half an eye on, the players were obliged instead to listen to one another: my goodness, how tangibly they did listen and respond, and what a performance they produced as a result! That way of performing is probably a far better metaphor for leadership and for the good operation of a school than relying on the person on the podium, so obviously directing the entire operation.

Returning to the question of which subject background makes the best head, the answer is, of course, none. It all depends on the personality, leadership skills and personal acumen of the individual. When we become school leaders, we should actually step aside from our subject specialism and become (academically) both generalist and agnostic. I cannot possibly comment on how or whether I measure up: that’s for others to say.

I like musicians, even if I’m wary of over-praising conductors. Naturally some of the latter are truly inspirational, notwithstanding my comments above, and at their best can bring new insights to the performance they direct that allow an audience to experience even a very familiar piece as if hearing it for the first time. But I still don’t think they provide a useful model for school leadership!

There’s an old story about an orchestra suddenly finding itself in trouble when its conductor was struck down with illness just before a major European tour. One of the violas (the instruments hidden in the middle of the string section) volunteered to step in. He did magnificently throughout the tour, the concerts attracting great critical acclaim. When the regular conductor returned, the viola player modestly returned to his seat at the back. “Nice to have you back,” said the musician who shared a music-stand with him. “Where the hell have you been these last few weeks?”

Dr Bernard Trafford is head of the Newcastle upon Tyne Royal Grammar School and a former Chairman of HMC.

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