Headteacher David Dixon muses on the nature of headship and how partnerships outside the world of education can lead to school improvement.

One spring term I received a phone call from a representative of Business In The Community (BITC). The person in question told me that BITC had begun a scheme whereby it was seeking to team up headteachers with business people for mutual benefit. I was aware that there have been similar schemes around for a long time and I have been involved with a couple (I will return to the BITC scheme later).

One such partnership occurred in the early 1990s when the Ford Motor Company offered the services of design engineers who were reaching retirement age. It was really aimed at secondary schools, but I cheekily applied for one and my school at the time received the services of an engineer for two days a week for two years. He had spent the latter years of his of his working life designing car dash-boards. In school, he led various design/technology projects, most notably helping us to create an impressive nature area in a central courtyard. But apart from this sort of practical application of the partnership, what I benefited from most was interacting with a ‘non-teacher professional’ who brought a different perspective to my  own and the school’s professional life.

I had numerous conversations with him comparing and contrasting our working lives. He seemed amazed at what he considered was often the haphazard and unpredictable nature of my job compared to his. Although he soon appreciated that much of this was due to dealing with primary aged children, he also pointed out areas where we lacked sufficient rigour. I did not accept much of this criticism at the time, but in retrospect many of his points were valid. I suppose this shows how far school leadership and management skills have progressed in the last 15 years.

Mixed results

However, this partnership almost ended very prematurely. A short time after the engineer took up his role, he wrote a letter of resignation because he felt that he was getting nowhere. He was working on the nature area with a group of children, most of whom had learning and behavioural difficulties.

As a result, his carefully crafted timelines for the project were soon in tatters. I gently pointed out to him that although the tangible parts of the project were yet to emerge and were in slippage, he had in fact had
many positive results with the children, ie they were motivated, happy and learning far more than in conventional lessons. In turn, the engineer gently pointed out to me some of my shortcomings in terms of lack of sufficient planning milestones and product definition.

In the end, he became a stalwart of the school, assisted on residential field trips and eventually joined the school governing body that badly lacked the presence of business people.

This experience and my current educational leadership doctoral studies have made me ponder the true nature of headship and how it compares to non-school professions. What other job is closest to that of headteacher… a managing director, or some other form of chief executive?

Suitable analogies

A lot of literature on educational leadership still relies upon industrial models, some of which are adapted for school leaders, but they never really seem to fit the bill. Which other job/profession can be truly analogous with that of the headteacher? Well, I think the answer is obvious… it has to be a football manager!

Think about it. A football manager’s job depends on league tables. If the team don’t attain enough points they are deemed failures. This may lead to a low league placing (school equivalent of serious weaknesses) and in the worst cases are relegated (the school equivalent of special measures).

The converse could be seen in terms of promotion (team) and beacon status (school). In either of the former situations, it is likely that funding will be reduced due to supporters choosing to take their ticket money elsewhere. The best players will be lured away to more successful clubs, leaving the worst or most inexperienced players to start the next season and thus plunge the club into a spiral of decline. Substitute players for teachers and supporters for parents and you get my drift. Clubs in dire straits can be offered a lifeline from a new super-rich chairman, aka academies. In all these doomsday scenarios, it is the headteacher/club manager who carries the can and dismissal, resignation or early retirement is what usually results.

But let us take the analogy further. In football at all levels there is a perennial debate about what tactics and style of play should be employed. This is largely decided by the manager and disseminated through the coaching staff. There is an increasing trend for calling managers ‘head coaches’ and the numbers of back-up staff in professional clubs has greatly increased. This is a reflection of head coaches needing to employ a more distributed leadership style, rather than ‘top down’. The same can be said in medium to large primary schools.

Some football clubs are noted for their attractive play, but often this is not enough to bring them success in the form of silverware. This means that teams who do not play attractive football can be vindicated if their easily measured outcomes are good, ie league status, cup success. The end really does justify the means and even if the clubs concerned are unloved they achieve financial success and status. This can be equated to schools who churn out the requisite SATs results by teaching to the test and attracting children from backgrounds who can stand this mechanistic approach.

Best of both worlds?

All football fans crave the best of both worlds, ie attractive football which brings success and it is probably right to say that, overall, it is clubs with this philosophy that win out more consistently in the end. Their leadership and management teams nurture the talents of staff and players, don’t look for quick fixes and believe that the process is as important as the product. These clubs also tend to have more tolerant supporters who will forgive a lower league placing if they consistently enjoy attractive football. Similarly, parents who send their children to such nurturing schools are likely to have a deeper understanding of what the school is trying to do and see beyond raw test results.

The headteacher and the football manager/coach, sets the tone for how their respective organisations operate. Despite distributed leadership, empowered governing bodies and more empathic Ofsted, the buck still stops with the head and he or she is only given a relatively short time to turn around an underperforming school before being condemned in turn as underperforming. It is no good bleating about falling rolls, poor socio-economic catchment, historic underfunding or loss of good staff.

In the same way a manager of a ‘sink’ club cannot bleat about lack of support, etc, if what happens on the pitch fails to improve. Usually such clubs need massive investment from a benevolent chairman to get them back on the rails and this is at the expense of other clubs who have less financial muscle. I suppose the aforementioned academies are the educational equivalent, but there is no equivalent for the primary sector unless a failing school is sucked into a 3-18 ‘super-school’.

A rewarding experience

I apologise to people who cannot abide football, so I will return to the subject of BITC. I have met my business partner several times and it has proved to be a very rewarding experience. Not only has it provided the aforementioned non-school perspective which has led us to look at various aspects of our work in a different way, it has also provided easily achieved practical improvements to the way we operate.

For example, my partner commented on the poor external and internal school signage. He also gave practical suggestions as to how the entrance hall and my office could be better presented and how the school brochure could be more user-friendly. He did an Inset session for classroom staff in order to find out what they thought the strengths and weaknesses of the school were. The teachers and TAs were far more forthcoming to this outsider than they had been before (despite me taking pride in being an open and accessible leader).

On my part, I am helping him to put plans together for a new business venture involving the development of private childcare. This means that the benefit is a two-way process. BITC have a framework for how the partnership proceeds, although after the first meeting we have not felt the need to stick to this rigidly because we have struck up a very good personal as well as professional relationship. It is certainly helping me to tackle school improvement from another angle and because it has no LEA, Ofsted or SIP connections, the nature of the partnership can be determined by ourselves with no other baggage to worry about.

However, I am including it on our SEF to pick up more ‘brownie points’, but more importantly to illustrate that my school is being proactive in seeking additional avenues for improvement and for this I am truly over the moon.