Family & Education

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. But Dr Alan Shaw has notched up nearly three decades leading Jewish schools


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 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.”

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.”

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