Magazine article The Spectator

Down with Superheads!

Magazine article The Spectator

Down with Superheads!

Article excerpt

Private-school 'superheads' are wonderful for publicity.They may not be so good for teaching

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'. …

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