The term ‘superhead’ was first used during the Blair government in 1998: an eye-catching word for a new breed of Superman-style headmasters or headmistresses, fast-tracked star teachers who would be parachuted into failing inner-city state schools and paid six-figure salaries to ‘turn them around’. It reaped rewards and can generally be considered a Good Thing. Sir Michael Wilshaw, for example, now chief inspector of schools, became known as ‘the hero of Hackney’ for transforming the academic record of Mossbourne Community Academy, built on the site of the totally-failed Hackney Downs School.
Sometimes power went to the superheads’ heads and they were caught siphoning off funds to pay for their holidays. There was a string of minor scandals and resignations.
Since then, the expression ‘superhead’ has seeped in to the independent sector. Not that independent schools generally need ‘turning around’ in the way that failing inner-city schools do, but what they do need is to keep their client numbers up, and to this end they like to keep themselves in the public eye with headline–grabbing initiatives. Today’s photogenic independent-school superheads are experts at dreaming up and delivering these initiatives. A typical one came a week or so ago from Richard Cairns, headmaster of Brighton College: he announced that from now on, both boys and girls at the school will be allowed to choose to wear either ‘the trouser uniform’ or ‘the skirt uniform’: this is to accommodate ‘gender dysphoria’ — boys identifying as girls and vice versa.
Clever! In one stroke, Richard Cairns gets himself and his school’s blue nameboard photographed in the papers with an initiative that (1) puts him and his school at the forefront of the transgender movement, (2) makes him popular with his students, (3) makes any dissenting parents feel like old fuddy–duddies, (4) makes other schools feel they are behind the times and should catch up, and (5) drums into the public psyche the school’s brand identity as an ‘open-minded community’. (‘What about the lavatories?’ Cairns was asked on the BBC World Service. ‘Do transgender students use the ladies or the gents?’ To which Cairns had the answer ready: ‘They use the disabled ones: we’re a school well-equipped with disabled toilets, and those are unisex.’) His school is of course in Kemp Town, Brighton, also known as ‘Camp Town’: it’s in the heart of Britain’s gayest community, and one of its other recent initiatives was to appoint the first openly gay head boy. Somehow you don’t feel his ideas would have gone down so well at, say, Gordonstoun.
‘Attention-seeking again!’ some whispered on Twitter and Facebook, reading about all this. In his Christmas letter to alumni, Cairns wrote: ‘Like John Lewis, we never knowingly undersell ourselves.’ That is all too true. The school takes up half a column of the Times Court Page at the start of term to trumpet its results. Cairns grabbed the headlines in 2006 when he introduced compulsory Mandarin lessons for all pupils from the age of four upwards, in an initiative to keep up with the world’s fastest–growing economy. In 2010 he started a Brighton College in Abu Dhabi. What next? An announcement that he’s offering bursaries (‘An exciting opportunity!’) to two Syrian refugees?
Note this difference: the first thing those state-school superheads tend to do, on being parachuted in, is to enforce strict uniform discipline. Dr Rory Fox at the Ryde Academy on the Isle of Wight, for example, famously sent 250 girls out of lessons in a ‘massive uniform crackdown’. It’s striking that independent-school superheads do the exact opposite: rather than clamping down, their initiatives are libertarian. Anthony Seldon at Wellington introduced ‘mindfulness’, yoga and happiness classes. He was another superhead: always in the papers with well-timed initiatives that reinforced the brand: Wellington is now synonymous in the public psyche with ‘happiness’ and ‘mindfulness’. Wellington came up with ‘The Eight Aptitudes’: ‘Moral, Spiritual, Logical, Linguistic, Physical, Cultural, Social and Personal’, underpinned by ‘the Five Core Values’ — kindness, courage, integrity, respect and responsibility. You can read all about these abstractions on their website.
The awful thing is that today’s new breed of super-rich parents, for whom the school their child is at is a kind of accessory to show off, along with their designer handbag, lap up this kind of thing. They love feelgood stuff. Paying £34,000 a year per child, they want the improving results and the cachet of the school being famous, and the high-profile happiness. A generation ago, what parents looked for in a headmaster or headmistress was a kind, tweedy figure with a labrador; someone who knew the students and taught history or scripture to the sixth-formers. Today they prefer a cult figure. If you ask today’s independent-school students what they think of their headmaster or headmistress, the answer is all too often, ‘We hardly ever see him.’
Even some of the staff are not sure exactly what their heads do all day: they’re away at conferences the whole time, and are always flying off to Russia or the Far East to drum up business. (Asians get A*s in maths and the sciences and can be relied on to boost the results statistics.) When the headmistress of St Catherine’s, Bramley, was asked how she managed to be headmistress when she needed to be away for three days a week as president of the Girls’ Schools Association, she said, ‘I have an excellent senior management team.’ This is business talk: schools are being run more and more as businesses.
The leader of a school does matter. Tom Bennett, the government’s new ‘school behaviour guru’, recently made the apposite remark that however good an individual teacher is, if there is no strong leader at the helm and the school is therefore chaotic, the teacher is merely ‘a warlord in a failed state’.
But there’s a danger a leader can find leadership so intoxicating that he or she becomes addicted to publicity and fails to do the more humble job of making sure that the staff feel supported. Education, at its heart, consists of a succession of lessons, well or badly taught. Superheads in their thirties and early forties tend to rush in and make gimmicky changes, desperate to leave their mark before moving on to a higher-profile school. There’s nothing they like more than overseeing a £30 million building project during their tenure. Wonderful, loyal teachers in their fifties, meanwhile, who quietly change children’s lives every day on a fraction of the head’s salary, often feel sidelined, unthanked and demoralised in an environment where their leader looks outwards for approval, and is always aiming to do away with the old and bring in the new.
The true test of a good head is that he or she would be happy to go back into the ranks as a teacher. Such humility is a million miles away from today’s superheads.