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Body and Soul: the work-life balance of a Head… February 9, 2011

Posted by Alex, Managing Director in Magazines.
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John Newton is Head at Taunton School, Somerset. Below is an extract from the excellent article he contributed to the spring 2011 issue of Conference & Common Room magazine, the official magazine of the leading independent schools in the UK, on the many roles of the modern Head.

It is a remarkable job that Heads do. Little did I think when I started my career in 1989 that by 2010 I would have to understand UK visa requirements, library square meterages, planning permission, pension schemes, gang mowers, analysis of local traffic flow and balance sheets.

You could all add to the list of arcane areas in which you find yourself battling as a non-expert to grasp the essence of an issue as it is explained by some besuited and besotted zealot.

The butterfly mind of a dilettante is a crucial asset as we do our jobs day by day, but I am sure that this was not always the case. Heads used to handle the curricular and the non-curricular sides to school life and we had bursars to deal with the vulgar stuff like budgets and building regulations. Then came the 1992 recession and those three dreaded letters began to drop their cold dead hands onto our job descriptions: CEO.

I confess that when asked what I do, I am still adamant that I am a Headmaster, but one with many guises.  Your staff want you to be Gordon of Khartoum, your governors prefer you to act like Gordon Ramsey. We are already seeing the next iteration of Headship – the American model of being totally given over to fundraising and alumni work, wowing audiences across the globe with tales of school success in order to rake in the shekels. Flash Gordon, too, then.

I have to say that my blood turned cold when we were asked whether we should be seeking to get into bed with the National College of School Leadership and evolve a qualification for Headship. Fine if it is optional, but disastrous if obligatory. Good Heads, Heads who stay the course, who can still inspire in the twilight years, Heads who can care for their wayward charges even when their own parent is ill or a personal issue is niggling – such folk are not made, but born.

We are ultimately, as we tell our pupils to be, rounded individuals with spiritual, physical, cultural and social needs. We are a whole collection of principles that get us through, armed with touchstones and bons mots that we refer to or quote when the chips are down. Mine come mainly from The Godfather: “Keep your friends close, but keep your enemies closer” is, I think, my favourite.

And what other books sit on the bedside table? At a recent meeting of Heads, we opened proceedings with a word from everyone about what they had read over the previous vacation. It was a moment of sanity.

But back to the tedium. How does the working day run? Are you a night owl or an early bird? Do you handle the same piece of paper more than once or are you a desk clearer? Do you have a study or an office? Are you technophobe or technophile? Do you have a PA or a secretary? Or several? Given the choice do you walk, drive, cycle or scooter to work? And then there is the time away. Is it crash out in Corfu or nourish the mind in Madrid? Is it downhill skiing or a fairway in the Algarve?

If you have read this far, you clearly either have very little to do or are very much on top of your brief. My fear about C&CR articles is that they can be a little lengthy, so I am going to stop provoking you and go back to our pensions policy. If the Editor permits (He does! Ed.), I may return with something from someone out there about how they deal with life at the top. It will be apt for the twitter generation (pithy will be in, wordy out) and provide a few personal reflections for the benefit of the other inmates in our delightful asylum.

Conference & Common Room is published by John Catt Educational on behalf of the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference (HMC) and is the magazine of leading independent schools in the UK. It is available as a two-year subscription for £25 (postage included) or single copies can be viewed via eZine.

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