School B has history and it is not a pretty tale, but a new head is changing things for the better with the support of his staff through the distribution of leadership, over a six-year period. This is a semi-rural 11–16 school of 1,100 pupils and little money. The majority of the teaching staff has been at the school for at least 10 years.
The interviewed staff identified teaching and learning, the curriculum and extra-curricular aspects of the school as areas where DL was most apparent to them. It is also significant that the school’s Key Stage 3 and GCSE results have improved markedly over the last three years in line with the freeing-up (as the head put it) of the school climate. The arrival of DL meant that the autonomy of subject leaders was increasingly respected, but accountability was equally clear.
The deputy head also summarised the change in climate:
I don’t feel I now have to push the wheelbarrow up the hill. Staff come to me with ideas and we work together.
There was a high degree of consistency in the way staff viewed the change of climate. As with School A, DL was given systematically by the head out of a need to create capacity and to, as he put it, to ‘allow him to have a life’.
One teacher described how her realisation that things were changing was linked with her involvement in the interviewing and appointment of a member of staff to her geography team, something that did not happen under the previous head.
During the first two years, the head ‘carried the change agenda to get the school to rethink’. He then removed ‘a blocking colleague’ from SLT and appointed a positive deputy head. Extended emotional intelligence training with staff enabled the school to explore ways to sustain change, including how to draw others into leadership – to develop DL. The responsibilities of the SLT and a few other staff were renegotiated on the basis of best fit. In September 2005, ahead of TLR, a new leadership and management structure was agreed. This created an extended SLT of 11 staff, including two very difficult colleagues. One of these was invited to lead the introduction of the new house system, which a number of interviewees had identified as a major change, not only structurally, but because it encouraged all tutors to take an interest in issues across the school. This colleague responded positively to the challenge, and, according to the head, better appreciated what challenges school leaders faced as a consequence.
The success of this incremental extension of DL has resulted in there being 11 key leaders who are working with other team leaders on effective leadership and not just management. The fact that there is now a rota for leading the main school assembly, rather than it always falling to the head, is a small but significant indication of the change to a more DL climate.
The head also indicated that although his key structural decisions were important, it is the ongoing micro-behaviours, modelled by the SLT and himself, that are equally influential in creating a climate in which DL can work. Sharing the new vision and individual coaching of staff were perceived by the head and all interviewees as particularly significant aids to establishing DL. Again, accountability is clear, but is not an inhibiting factor. Distributed leadership is seen now as bringing opportunity and higher standards of attainment.
The deputy comments:
The school had to ‘smell success’ before this [DL] became possible. The school was underperforming. Staff felt the work they did was not valued and what they had been doing was no good. Once changes produced results it was easier to take the agenda for change forward.
Head redundant thanks to DL?
So, what does the head now focus on as the spread of leadership becomes an everwidening delta? Strategic decisions, monitoring T&L through classroom observation and the coaching of individual staff are this head’s main interests. He also accepts that he always carries the ultimate responsibility. He adds, that owing to the underfunding of the school, he spends too long managing the budget so that funding does not get in the way of DL. He admits that it has this year, with the school being unable to find the money to support four team leaders to engage with the NCSL leading from the middle (LftM) programme. He also admits that some of the new TLR posts are not funded to the extent he would like. Staff are enjoying the opportunities afforded by the restructuring and the positive climate, but this lack of funding must be an issue with regard to further expansion of DL.
Implementing distributed leadership in your school
Any implementation strategy for DL must be a response to the existing climate and the perceived priorities for development. There is no blueprint. Some schools will have many staff keen and ready to take responsibility in a context of agreed values. Others may need to work up the vision and values with staff and then invite leadership participation from one or two staff at a time, building gradually on success. Schools where the values and vision are shared with staff may undertake a school-wide restructuring with new or amended roles. A key principle is to recognise the cliché, ‘nothing succeeds like success’. Cultural change is demanding and unsettling for those on the receiving end, just as it is demanding of leaders. It is generally recognised by most educationists outside the DfES and Ofsted, that real change takes three to five years to develop and embed. School B and the other schools I have visited were taking this broad timescale as their reality.
The main obstacles to success concern staff readiness to receive a distribution of leadership. If they are used to having low autonomy and checking all decisions with the SLT or the head, they will need clear guidelines, repeated, for how to proceed. They will need support and/or coaching and especially a tolerant attitude to any errors they may make: as ever, these should be treated sympathetically as learning opportunities.
What of the national future of DL? I visit schools regularly in my consultant capacity and it seems that although the terminology may vary and the degree of given and taken DL may also vary, secondary schools are taking the need to build capacity seriously and are using DL to achieve this. Distributed leadership is set to assume even more importance given initiatives such as executive headships, increased collaboration and extended provision. It also lends itself to other key initiatives, including federation of schools.
But a principal threat to its ongoing development remains: the Government-driven centralised systems of accountability that identify heads as pivotal to the effective leadership of the school. Let us hope that the courage of heads and the enthusiasm of staff outweighs the Government’s preference for centralised command, control and accountability.
Trevor Arrowsmith, Education Consultant and Researcher
The author wishes to thank all the staff who have been generous with their time in supporting his research into DL.
In 2004, following nine years as principal of a Northampton upper school, Trevor Arrowsmith became an NCSL Consultant Leader. He has worked on a part-time consultancy basis with various local authorities, supporting schools in special measures and with self -evaluation. Following six years as an external adviser, he is now a school improvement partner (SIP).
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