Roger Smith considers ways to make the role of headteacher more straightforward, and says the best way to achieve this is without additional involvement

I would certainly never argue that leading a school was easy or that using leadership skills to manage all the difficult issues that cross our desks was anything other than complex. Neither would I want to suggest that raising standards and dealing with people — all the children, parents and colleagues — who are part of our working day was anything other than time-consuming and often quite stressful. But what I would like to try to do is to suggest that school leadership works best if it is simple – as simple and uncomplicated as possible. This is not the same as easy at all. It will never be easy, but it could be much simpler.

Simple or complicated – is there a difference?
I have used this particular analogy before – but, it is too good not to use again. The best pub where I live had an elderly barman who had worked locally all his life and had seen it all. One evening a young sixth former who was pulling pints before going to university rushed breathlessly up to him shouting that a barrel was leaking and had started to flood the cellar. Our elderly barman didn’t overcomplicate the issue by moving into any theories of management and leadership by quoting Drucker – ‘Management is doing things right – leadership is doing the right things’, or President Carter – ‘A great leader takes people where they don’t necessarily want to go’. No, he kept his decision-making very simple indeed and fainted. Some said from ‘exhaustion’ caused by sampling what he was selling. But I still prefer to think that the splat as he hit the floor was his simple and well-tried leadership technique.

Imagine this scene being repeated in school after school. Imagine that this is your office. Enter one of your over-anxious, but well-meaning, governors saying something like: ‘Hi, Andy, sorry to bother you, but what are we doing about the latest government initiative?’  Cue your simple, yet effective response – splat! Or, with experience you could pare the technique down and simplify it even further: enter a flustered colleague with a mournful ‘Morning, Margaret. Sorry to bother you but…’ Splat!

On the other hand, many of us are surrounded by people who would like to make our lives more complicated. (I will write more about governors in a future article.) At one particular school near me with an excellent reputation, there was an efficient and smooth-running governing body that had to hold the usual parent-governor elections. There were two vacancies, and as often happens, only two candidates, who were both duly ‘elected’. Unfortunately, one was a self-employed management consultant and the other was a senior manager for a large public organisation. According to the head, who I know well, and whose views I respect, within a year there were two extra committees for various aspects of long-term strategic planning. This involved more meetings, more paperwork and more time spent by more school staff. But the governing body became far less successful at taking simple decisions and helping the school to run effectively. The head suggested that, despite everyone appearing to work much harder, far less had actually got done, and subsequently everyone became frustrated and disillusioned by how over-complicated things had become.

Creating simple leadership strategy isn’t easy
The joke goes, and I have probably used this one before, I’d give my right arm to be ambidextrous. I am sure all of us would metaphorically give our right arms to know how to simplify our lives and lead our schools more easily through the minefields of the 21st century. In June of this year there was a short and largely-hidden report in the newspapers that Ofsted had found 14 failed schools which had become successes because they had strong leadership. Not exactly rocket science, and it prompted Simon Jenkins in The Sunday Times to link strong leadership with a principle known as Ockham’s Razor which translates as, ‘Do not apply many things to a task that can be done with a few’. This can be linked to the American marines’ acronym KISS – Keep It Simple Stupid! If we lose the ‘stupid’, we have exactly what we should be looking for – a philosophy of school leadership that works: ‘Keep it simple’.

Changing the mind set
Unfortunately, there are many people on the fringes of education who are only rarely seen in schools, but who like bureaucratic complexity. They seem to thrive on meeting after meeting and revel in constant change. They can’t really appreciate that we don’t necessarily need more theoretical ‘expertise’. There doesn’t always have to be more inspectors and advisors to make a system work. Complex research away from actual schools doesn’t necessarily make schools better, and more local education authority officers and office blocks can actually be unhelpful. But the mere idea of keeping leadership simple is threatening to those people who like to think that what they do is obscure and difficult – when it actually isn’t. Simplifying the process of leadership endangers thousands of ‘non-jobs’ and can threaten to return all those teachers who left to join the educational bureaucrats back to where they can do the most good – in their schools.

Good, simple leadership means a good head
If we want a good school, we need a good head. And these good heads who are, of course, us, should be given the money to do our jobs and largely left to get on with it. We are not beings from outer space or figments of anyone’s imagination. We are the successful leaders who are able to motivate our colleagues, create a whole-school identity, instil in all our children a sense of belonging and make everyone proud of their collective achievement. We should be able to raise standards for all children. But to do this, to keep everything simple and purposeful, we have to take risks and be prepared to fight for our school and to know what is best for our children. We don’t necessarily need outside expertise because it can inhibit us and slow the pace of improvements. In many ways, our main leadership role is to fight off the marauding bands of inspectors, ‘experts’, theorists, government initiatives and local officials and to do what we know will work for our children.

At the same time, we need to be aware that many of our leadership qualities will involve motivation. This requires much more than ‘simple’ planning and ‘simple’ action. We need to have:

  • sympathy towards colleagues’ ideas
  • appreciation for their points of view
  • understanding of, and concern for, their feelings
  • compassion
  • willingness to praise and to be seen to praise
  • the ability to know when to apply pressure and when to stand back.

Simple leadership and simple management
Leadership has long been recognised as the key factor in making every school a good school and most schools centres of excellence. Leadership, it seems to me, can be about style and personality and how this impacts on the different roles and purposes of the school. If we include leading from the middle as well, it is all about persuading colleagues where to go next and why it is important to get there.

Management is simpler to define, and it is really about seeing what needs to be done, creating opportunities and putting together all the different bits of the organisation so that you get where you need to go as quickly and as efficiently as possible. Good leaders are usually perceptive enough to be both creative organisers and managers. Those who aren’t almost inevitably appoint senior colleagues who are. See? It is really that simple!

Defining good, simple leadership
Ofsted, as the nation’s arbiters of educational quality, look closely at how well schools are led and managed, and have always assumed that a good leader:

  • manages the school effectively
  • promotes high standards of teaching and learning
  • makes sure the governing body fulfils its statutory responsibilities
  • monitors and evaluates the schools performance
  • diagnoses its strengths and weaknesses.

These are relatively simple statements, but do they actually tell us how good leaders do all these things successfully? Perhaps it’s easier to understand if they are balanced against what not to do! Chris Woodhead, as early as 1997, in his annual report as Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Schools, listed the characteristics of ineffective leaders as follows:

  • rarely seen in classrooms
  • do not monitor teaching enough to know staff’s strengths and weaknesses
  • fail to bring about improvements in teaching
  • are unable to delegate and spend far too much time on routine paperwork
  • create a lack of a sense of purpose
  • fail to set clear objectives and targets.

Obviously none of us want to be like that, but the list is still relatively unhelpful. Perhaps the essence of what simple leadership actually is will always remain difficult to define.

Let’s keep leadership simple
As leaders we have to make events happen, understand exactly what we want to happen and develop effective structures that will help our schools improve. To do this we need to be good at:

  • forecasting what needs doing
  • planning how to do it
  • organising what needs to be done
  • delegating tasks to appropriate colleagues
  • coordinating and controlling what happens.

Unfortunately there is no single definition of good leadership, but we all know that we have unique capabilities and many original ideas, and without strong simple leadership and a sense of direction, it will be difficult to continue to raise standards. Jantzi, et al (1999) suggest that:

‘… we are coming to believe that leaders are simply those people who ‘walk ahead’, people who are genuinely committed to deep change in themselves and in their organisations. They lead through developing new skills, capabilities and understandings. And they come from many places within the organisations.’ (Emphasis added.)

This implies that there are many potential leaders in schools and that we should be looking for them, building their leadership qualities and using them to help us raise standards. If we do this, then our lives will be easier and our leadership much simpler and more precisely defined. In having a deep commitment to raise standards and to be the best, we have to also recognise that leadership is about:

  • creating and securing a commitment to a clear vision
  • managing change so as to improve the school
  • building a high performing team
  • inspiring, motivation and influencing staff
  • leading by example and taking responsibility.

Whatever leadership style we use, we must avoid stifling creativity and innovation, and certainly not be afraid of change. As school leaders we have to work with many different agencies. This increases the importance of sharing views and developing an ethos where a variety of colleagues can work together to solve problems, where decisions are taken and change managed by consensus and democracy rather than autocracy. Doing all this simply will save time.

I seem to remember Hansard reported that in one year recently the schools ministry sent out almost 4,000 pages of instruction to headteachers. Was this useful enough to raise standards? Did it help make teaching and learning better? To me, such meddling suggests a lack of confidence in the schools themselves. What should really be happening is the promotion and encouragement of simple leadership strategies. Of course, if we were left to get on with it, we could achieve even greater things!

Roger Smith is a former primary headteacher

References and further reading
Doris Jantzi, Kenneth A Leithwood, Rosanne Steinbach (1999) Changing Leadership for Changing Times, University of Toronto Press: Toronto