Analysing how critical leadership roles are being performed in your school can be a worthwhile exercise, says Richard Bird, former headteacher and now legal consultant to the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL)

The nature of the senior leadership role in schools is one of constant, insistent, low-level demands. The Grubb Institute used to remind headteachers that the head is the only person in a school with whom every other person in the school believes they have a personal relationship. Parents are also inclined to want a piece of him/her. This means that there is a tendency always to be managing the urgent rather than leading on the important and to be meeting other people’s demands for accountability, rather than defining and pursuing a coherent strategy for school improvement. Sometimes leaders can find themselves doing little more than smoothing the way to help other staff achieve the aims which they have determined themselves. Yet leadership is more than being the figurehead of a boat that is being propelled by the combined oars of the staff and directed by the judgements of the school SIP. And the leadership of the senior team needs to be manifest at all levels, not just passed down through middle management by a process of Chinese whispers (and inevitably being diluted on the way). It can be difficult for a senior or central team to be aware of how much time is spent responding and how much leading and what system will enable them to lead. In addition, there is the question of who is actually supposed to be doing what: particularly when the nature of school life tends to overlap roles rather than to distinguish them. Simply checking job descriptions or person specifications won’t do, as they tend to limit their focus on the general and aspirational or conversely on tasks rather than on roles.

Looking at roles

If focus is lost as a result, the likely progress of the school is affected. There are various ways to look at the leadership contribution but one is to compare with the roles that large corporations identify. What are these roles? First, there is the chief executive officer whose functions are to define the purpose and direction of the firm; to be the face of the company to the outside world, lobbying and developing its profile and to be a focus within the company for all employees. Then there is the chief finance officer. His or her job is to ensure that there is investment, as well as annual solvency and financial propriety. Within those lie the task of determining whether an investment will be profitable, on the one hand; and on the other hand, finding the funds to invest in the future development of the company. The chief operations officer is there to make sure that the company’s systems run smoothly, that suppliers are reliable and deliver the correct quality and that the systems within the organisation are designed properly and are followed by all employees. For some companies, human resource is a role worthy of a senior position. HR covers recruitment, compliance with employment legislation, discipline and dismissals – but is also about making the most of the talents of everyone in the company. Finally, there is the chief strategy officer (CSO), whose job is to ensure that the strategic approach the company has decided to follow is in fact being followed at every level and is not being sidelined, diluted or lost as it moves down the management system. Between them these roles cover all the main leadership tasks that need to be done to keep the organisation functioning and moving forward in an agreed direction.

Applying the outside world to school

In giant corporations people have these titles on their doors and spend their working lives performing these roles to the exclusion of other work. How far is this applicable to schools? It is not hard to see that despite the difference in purpose, it is important that these roles are somehow performed in a school, whether by one person or by the senior team as a whole. There is a chief education officer (CEO) role, which involves managing boards (for example governors and internal school teams) and relating to the local authority (in the case of maintained schools) or perhaps the sponsor (in the case of academies). The role also entails handling consortium relationships; projecting the school to the community, including the school community and its parents and ensuring that there are short-term, medium-term and long-term strategic visions. The chief financial officer (CFO) role is about controlling the revenue budget, including managing the balance within it; devising projections for the coming three years; managing financial systems and ensuring honesty in operating them. Other responsibilities include checking on costs both in terms of staff and money and, as part of that, projecting and evaluating the costs of new courses, whether provided in-house, or out sourced as part of consortium arrangements; and devising a capital strategy, maintaining; renewing and developing the site and its buildings. The deployment of staff, timetabling, managing and organising routines and events and controlling the operation of standing policies (for example, homework and assessment) come under the role of the chief operating officer (COO). The human resources role is also clearly defined. There is staff management: recruitment (including the production of recruitment literature and devising a recruitment strategy in a period of growing shortages in key areas) retention of staff; performance management of staff; continuous professional development and possibly termination of staff contracts. But there is also the question of the workers. As the ancient school rhyme has it:

God made the bees.
The bees make honey.
We do the work
And the teacher gets the money.

From this perspective, HR also includes ensuring that students also make the most of what they do; clearing obstacles, personal, cultural and institutional out of their way and making sure that their motivation is released to help them get the best results for themselves and the school.

Championing the new

Finally there is the CSO; the personification of the school’s strategy. This role is to do with all those parts of a school’s strategy which are at a development stage rather than at a maintenance stage. A new idea comes into a school; everyone works at it and then, if things are working well, it becomes simply ‘the way we do things here.’ It is at the stage when everyone is working at it that the CSO is needed. A new strategy may mean that staff have to learn new and sometimes counter-intuitive approaches. This can lead all too easily to their defaulting back to the old ways. It is the CSO’s job to act as champion for the new and to check that everyone is doing what they are supposed to be. Once the new idea is part of the culture of the organisation, it transfers to the responsibility of the COO as the guardian of school operations. Is this just a re-badging exercise? Are these simply the familiar school posts under a different fashionable name? It may look like it at first. CEO equals head. CFO equals bursar and so on. Or does it? A closer look raises questions. Does a bursar usually evaluate new courses for their financial viability? Where is the HR role? And does the CSO role exist at all? Is the explanation that while these posts are ‘real’ in multi-million corporations, they have to be ‘virtual’ in schools? (Quite apart from anything else, despite the recent increase in the number of large secondary schools, there isn’t generally the money to pay for this fine definition of posts). So perhaps people share the roles.

The meaning of leadership

That is exactly the point of the exercise: to discover precisely whether, and how, these critical roles are in reality performed in your school. Moreover, by asking questions explicitly related to these roles, a school can check where the effort of its senior leaders is going and what leadership means day to day in the school. A school’s leadership can approach the question by the now traditional means of a diary analysis. First, record how the week has been spent: day by day, hour by hour. Then interrogate the data. Who in the senior team has spent their time performing which role; and which strategic part of the role? How has it been performed? As incidental to something else or in an explicit way? When has it been performed? Has it been fitted in at a stolen moment in a break or lunchtime? In a formal meeting? In a casual conversation that turned into something else? In a feedback on an observation? And, partly following from the previous questions: is there a system within which these roles are performed or is it all ad hoc and fitted in around the urgent needs of the day? Finally, how much of the week of senior leaders has been spent in performing these roles; and is it too much, too little, or about as much as the organisation can take?

Making the changes

At first team members may find it quite difficult to see where key parts of some of these roles are being performed. They may even be alarmed at how little of the working week the team spends on some of them at all. This may be a proper cause for alarm, or, on reflection, the team may feel that at the stage of development the school is at, the balance is about right. If there is a feeling that some aspects of school life are unbalanced then the next and perhaps most important question to be addressed is that of systems. For example, the team may want to ask whether a snatched conversation has really made the strategic point that the school leader wanted to make to the TLR post holder. There probably is a system for discussion of these issues. How well does it work? The next stage, of course, is to change what needs to be changed and to repeat the activity at the end of a period that will allow change to be evaluated. Of course, the analysis may show that all roles are filled and performed and all pigs are ready for take-off. If that is the case, then the benefit will simply have been that the team has looked at itself from a fresh angle and one not dictated by Ofsted. But if not, it will have been a useful way of ensuring that senior leadership is fulfilling its leadership role, not in terms of SEF box-ticking, but in terms of day-to-day action.

The late John Harvey-Jones once laid it down as a principle of management that every post beyond the man on the shop floor must add value or it should go. The question for any school post holder is what that added value is. This analysis may help a leadership team to answer the question: ‘What value do we add and is it leadership value?