Shaw touch of a long-serv­ing head

With fund­ing pres­sures and the re­lent­less pace of change, it has never been harder to be a head teacher


AT THE end of last year, The Times re­ported that more than one in 10 head teach­ers in lo­cal author­ity schools was leav­ing each year. An­other re­port pre­dicted within five years one in four schools might strug­gle to fill se­nior posts — head teach­ers, deputy or as­sis­tant heads.

“I do have con­cerns about the long-term fu­ture,” says Alan Shaw, head of the Has­monean Pri­mary School in Hen­don, north-west Lon­don.

“I have met sev­eral deputy heads who don’t want to go on to head­ship. When they see what’s in­volved, they’d rather have a life.”

Few can know bet­ter the de­mands of the role. For Dr Shaw must be the long­est-serv­ing head in a Jewish state-aided school in the UK. By the sum­mer, he will have clocked up 29 years as head of a Jewish school and 36 years in the Jewish ed­u­ca­tional sys­tem, where he has spent most, but not quite all, his work­ing life. “I did a year of ac­coun­tancy when I first left col­lege and I didn’t like it at all,” he says. “All week long I looked for­ward to Sun­day cheder teaching.”

He came to Has­monean, one of the oldest Jewish pri­maries in the coun­try, which cel­e­brates its 70th an­niver­sary this year, in 2013. Be­fore that he was the first head of Mo­riah Jewish Day School in Pin­ner for 15 years and head of Il­ford Jewish Pri­mary for 10.

He says he owes his pro­fes­sional longevity partly to the fact that “I have been par­tic­u­larly lucky with staff, gov­er­nors, par­ents and pupils — per­haps luck­ier than some of my col­leagues.”

But he also has his cop­ing strate­gies. “I do pace my­self. I won’t have my school email on my phone. If I did, I’d be buzzed a hun­dred times a day. I choose when each day to check my emails.

“With every­thing they have to do, a head has got to find some­thing with chil­dren they re­ally like do­ing. I run the school choir, as I did at Mo­riah. It’s al­most ther­apy for me.”

When he joined the As­so­ci­a­tion of Jewish Teach­ers in 1988, he says, “I was the baby.” By the time it folded a cou­ple of years ago, giv­ing way to Part­ner­ships for Jewish Schools, “I was the zeida.”

The job of a head­teacher, he ac­knowl­edges, “is so dif­fer­ent from when I

started. You are much more of a man­ager now.” Rest­less Ed­u­ca­tion Sec­re­taries keen to make their mark have put heads un­der “enor­mous pres­sure. Since the 1980s, the gov­ern­ment has pushed this mar­keti­sa­tion of schools and the sur­vival of the fittest, pit­ting school against school. If you want to get your fund­ing, you’ve got to have

pupils on seats.”

In the “data-driven” cul­ture, par­ents weigh up SATs and league ta­ble per­for­mances and, like foot­ball man­agers, a head may be judged only as good as their last set of re­sults.

“A school can have a weak co­hort one year. I’ve had chil­dren so weak aca­dem­i­cally they can’t sit the SATs. They may

I run the school choir, it’s al­most ther­apy

be lovely chil­dren and make progress in their own way, but that brings down the class av­er­age in the league ta­bles.”

Not only have schools had to con­tend with change but the pace of it — a re­vised Of­sted in­spec­tion frame­work two years ago and new Sats tests last year.

Mean­while, schools such as Has­monean are hav­ing to jug­gle re­sources against a shrink­ing bud­get. Its lo­cal author­ity al­lo­ca­tion has dropped by around four per cent in three years, while it has had to meet in­creases in staff pay and pen­sion con­tri­bu­tions.

And there are warn­ings of fresh cuts to come.

“We have ab­sorbed the cuts over the past cou­ple of years in ways that are not so vis­i­ble to par­ents, in­clud­ing cut­ting back on train­ing cour­ses for staff and util­is­ing PTA funds for es­sen­tials, rather than ex­tras as in the past,” he says.

“How­ever, I be­lieve we will reach a crit­i­cal point where we will not be able to man­age with­out ad­di­tional fi­nan­cial sup­port from par­ents, bene­fac­tors and the wider com­mu­nity.”

As if this were not enough, re­cruit­ing new teach­ers can be a chal­lenge, with a third of newly qual­i­fied teach­ers hav­ing quit the pro­fes­sion within five years since 2010, ac­cord­ing to re­cent re­search. Al­though, he says, staffing at Has­monean has been “pretty sta­ble”.

The more com­pet­i­tive ed­u­ca­tional cli­mate can also cause greater stress for chil­dren, some­times faced with un­rea­son­able parental ex­pec­ta­tion to suc­ceed. At the same time there may be the pres­sure of try­ing to keep up with peer trends ex­erted by so­cial me­dia.

“I’m see­ing far more ex­am­ples in the last few years of chil­dren with anger man­age­ment is­sues and ten­sion than I ever used to see 20 years ago,” he says. “We have to deal with so­cial prob­lems more than in the past. There’s fi­nan­cial hard­ships in fam­i­lies that causes ten­sions. It’s tough out there, life is very fre­netic these days.”

Be­yond the mul­ti­ple du­ties of a head teacher, those in faith schools have the added re­spon­si­bil­ity of de­liv­er­ing a re­li­gious cur­ricu­lum, with the ex­tra chal­lenge in a Jewish school of find­ing “spe­cial­ists who can teach He­brew”.

While he may have worked ex­clu­sively within the Jewish sec­tor, he stud­ied head­ship in re­li­gious state schools more gen­er­ally for his PhD, which he earned a few years ago.

On the “plus side” of work­ing in a Jewish school, he says, “we are all very close com­mu­ni­ties, ev­ery­one knows each other, lots of the staff know the pupils out of school. In a cri­sis ev­ery­body ral­lies round. The down­side is a lack of pro­fes­sional dis­tance some­times — a bit of chutz­pah. Par­ents take lib­er­ties they wouldn’t do in a non-Jewish school.”

But liv­ing in Edg­ware, he is not “on the doorstep” of his own school and runs less risk of be­ing col­lared over kid­dush by a par­ent.

Apart from the school choir he also leads Has­monean’s res­i­den­tial trips, with an out­door chal­lenge cen­tre in Devon be­ing the des­ti­na­tion this year.

At 61, he has no thoughts of early re­tire­ment. “I am still en­joy­ing it most of the time. I like the buzz in a school, the at­mos­phere. Schools are a great place to work, even with all the pres­sures.”

It’s tough out there. Life is very fre­netic these days

Has­monean Pri­mary Head Dr Alan Shaw with some of his pupils at the Hen­don school

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