A lot of the end of the year is about saying goodbye and wishing everyone a good summer. This should be jubilant or at the very least cathartic – especially when saying farewell to the pupils and parents for the summer. I mean for a start there are the gifts: yes teachers, I know I may no longer fare as well as you with your bottles of wines, your chocolates and your novelty ties or even your garish mugs littered with amusing spelling errers; but I get the handshakes, the comments on what a good year, the very odd card (no I don’t get as many as you although I’ll argue mine mean more because they really didn’t have to send me one) and the surprisingly touching comment ‘I Hope you have a nice holiday because you really deserve one’.
Then there’s the emotional juggernaut that is the Year 6 leaver’s assembly which should pack enough punch that by the end of it no one should be able to manage anything – even the simple task of picking up a felt tip pen and badly signing a shirt without blubbing and collapsing into a weeping heap on the floor.
It’s a funny thing the Year 6 leaver’s assembly: you get the full range of emotion. First there are the photos and the memories where everyone is happy and laughing. Parents nudge each other and smile; the children giggle and put their arms around their buddies; teachers and staff look on and feel genuine pride in the knowledge that their work here is now done. Then comes the song, with a song-choice so contrived in order to manipulate the tear ducts of the parents that I wouldn’t be surprised if the producers of The X-Factor book themselves into every school leaver’s assembly to choose the show’s set-list. And then they’re off! (I mean the crying starts not the children just get up and leave.) I stand at the back and I see it all: children really crying, children trying to cry, children looking at the ones crying wondering if they should start crying and the ones who are crying with laughter because they can’t believe some of their friends are actually crying.
I have stopped enjoying the Year 6 leaver’s assembly since becoming a Head. I still feel pride when I see them up on stage and (hopefully) still stand back and think ‘we did alright by you, you’re ready’ but I don’t enjoy them. Mainly because I know at the end I’ll have to say a few words. Now normally I love nothing more than holding court and speaking to my people but, on this occasion, it worries me. You see, I can’t help feeling that the parents are thinking that this is their last chance to mutiny. For years they’ve had to publicly sit there and suck it up – all the drivel that comes out of my mouth as I pontificate at the start or end of any school social engagement. Yes they go on about it on Facebook, but never to my face and never in public but now…what have they got to lose? What am I going to do? Ban them from the playground? So I say my words whilst looking for the first signs of dissent. The eye-rolls, the slow hand-claps, the humming, the standing up on a chair and shouting ‘You’re an appalling man who is ruining the lives of all children.’ But so far…they haven’t done it. Not sure why, they’re probably wrapped up in their own kids rather than my angst the selfish swines.
Sometimes you have to say goodbye to staff and occasionally that goodbye represents huge tectonic shifts in the running of the school. A key member of SLT is leaving or a deputy or someone who has been there for decades is finally off. ‘What does that mean?’ people will ask. Does this mark some iconic clash of ideology and is the school now going to hell in a handcart? The answer is normally ‘no’ but that may not stop some people from hypothesising – very publicly. These are normally people who are unhappy themselves but don’t have the gumption to actually do anything about it or leave. Sadly they fail to see the actual talent in the people who are leaving and assume that it must be personal (which says more about them and is actually quite derogatory to the beloved people leaving but there you are).
At times like these the phrase ‘end of an era’ normally gets bandied around more freely than a loom band at wet play. I dislike this phrase when talking about schools. It encourages a rose-tinted view of the past that then suggests what is happening now is not as good. And this, in my opinion, is distorted, unhealthy and ignores the obvious: everyone in a school at any given time is trying to do what the school needs at that given time. Yes it may be different to the past, yes it may need different personnel to do the job and yes, sometimes it is reacting to a shift in the national picture but that is what happens if a school is doing its job: it responds to the needs evident in its community; the minute a school stands still it is dead in the water.
When reflecting back on the achievements and contributions of others in a school’s past, I prefer to use the word ‘legacy’. What legacy have they left behind? This supports the notion that whatever they did, they did it with the intention of improving the school and the provision and care of its pupils. We should all be thinking about the legacy that we will leave when we finally push off – because then we’ll be focussed on the children who are in the school now and our contribution to that school will be valid and purposeful.
A Head once said to me that he disliked it when Heads talked about ‘their school’ in a way that suggested no one else could take over after them. He said that if a school can’t be managed after one person at the top goes then how could anyone say that that Head was any good? (The same can be applied to the class teacher whose class is only well behaved if they are there – that is not a thing to be proud of, that poor behaviour in your absence means you have some more work to do.) The legacy of any leader should be that when they go, it’s easy for someone to take over the role, keep things ticking over with minimal disruption until they spot the next thing that needs to change. Reflecting on a ‘big’ staff change that has happened in my school – the outgoing leader can be assured that he has done just that and he leaves a lasting legacy behind.
Then there’s the packing up. I can pack up my car in about two minutes, the only thing that holds me up is if I get stuck behind a teacher on the way to the car park who is struggling carrying all the bags clinking with wine and rattling with boxes of maltesers. There is also the staff do where I will spend my time trying to avoid anyone who looks like they have drunk enough to tell me what they really think about me. Finally there are the last goodbyes where we all wish each other a great summer and say ‘see you in September’ even though we all know we’ll see each other tomorrow because we need to go back to school because there’s a memory stick there that we just can’t do without over August.
Yet with all these goodbyes and all the emotions I still find the last day of Term 6 a bit of an anti-climax. Don’t get me wrong, nothing beats the first morning of the summer holidays where you realise you really are on holiday – but the actual end of the year, well it always feels like a bit of let-down. On reflection I think this is self-imposed. I mean why do we fixate on the end of the year? Why do I set the last day of term as the day where I should be able to sit back and say ‘There – everything is done’? That is madness! It also puts on a lot of meaningless pressure on me and everyone else. We feel the need to dot every i and cross every t because…because what? It’s the end? I spend my whole time saying ‘schools are constantly evolving, schools never stand still, your work is never done’ and yet I feel this burden to get everything completed as if the school is going to be entered into some weird end of year competition and I want to win ‘best in show’. What am I trying to ‘complete’ and why am I trying to complete it at a point in time where no one is going to see it for six weeks? I am in idiot!
It was Michael Gove’s exit as secretary of state for education that made me realise my folly. Focussing on getting to the summer holidays as if it is some sort of mecca mirrors my feelings over his promotion to Chief Whip. It was something I had been dreaming about for months, but when it happened I was too busy trying to remember how to assemble the staging for the summer performance to care about it, and come September, when I return to school, I’ll realise that everything is still just the same without him. So cheers Michael, your work here is done, sadly, I fear, your legacy will be around for a lot longer.