Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Mr Rudd's problems - trouble in the school yard

As I write, our new headmaster is struggling to control his new Australian school. The pupils have become unruly.

The school cadet corp is upset at what some see as favoritism for its elite units in school excursions. Rising prices in the school canteen have upset most pupils. There are real problems with the school's moral tone.

Some of the younger pupils have been binge drinking, other pupils have been engaging in immoral behaviour. The Head's attempt to enforce what he sees as proper behaviour has led to unexpected rebellion among some of the more academic and artistic senior pupils who had previously supported his desire to reform the school.

The school's budget position has become difficult. Despite the arrival of wealthy families in the neighbourhood who have increased school fees, many parents are finding it difficult to meet fees and are demanding cuts.

The school's budget committee and its many official and unofficial advisers are struggling to balance the need for fiscal conservatism with the Head's requirement that the school introduce new teaching methods and the desire of parents for cuts to help them meet immediate needs. Many newly appointed advisers have been surprised at just how unreasonable parents can be.

The Head's attempt to introduce new business based budget approaches and to find the money to pay for his new schemes has met unexpected opposition from the school's major organisational and educational divisions. Reluctant to give up part of their budgets to pay for the Head's new plans but unwilling to object outright, they are dragging their heels.

In his own way, the Head has tried to be consultative.

Staff have been instructed to hold more parent-teacher meetings. The School's executive committee has been holding regular meetings with different groups of parents. The Head convened a summit of selected students to try to tap new ideas for the school. He met with his senior administrators as a group to try to inspire them.

A variety of existing as well as many new school bodies have been charged with the responsibility of coming up with new directions, as well as the implementation of the Head's immediate plans. The school is a flurry of activity. Reports and working papers abound.

Unfortunately, these efforts have not been fully appreciated by staff, students or parents. A staff letter to the senior executive committee dealing with pricing matters for a key item in the school canteen was leaked to one of the many student publications. Those publications have suddenly switched from almost total support to annoying criticism.

Within the school council, the previously splintered and disorganised old guard that had dominated the council has suddenly gained new energy.

In all this, the Head has struggled with a delegation problem. Enormously energetic with an eye for and love of detail, he cannot help his desire for personal control, to see that things get done in the proper way. Few can match the Head's work ethic or his knowledge of detail.

Early on, he took direct control over relations with neighbouring schools. Now, with some exceptions such as the Deputy Head, he seems to suck authority to him.

In the face of current troubles, the Head does as he has always done, attempt to work harder. Armed with eighteen sets of briefing papers, he still faces his opponents on the school council with authority.

Yet the emerging problems in the school are worrying. It is not clear that the over-loaded school systems can cope. The risk for the head is that his very strengths may ultimately undo the things that he has been trying to achieve.

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