David Dixon adds his voice to the debate about the role of the headteacher in today’s schools and suggests that ‘fast-track’ and non-teaching heads may be the poorer for missing out on the daily detail of school life

Over the last few months there have been various pieces written about the role of the headteacher. Most notable was the report that heads of schools would not necessarily have to be qualified teachers who had served a number of years in the classroom. The first non-teacher to acquire an NPQH qualification was announced and the ‘hero head’ consigned to history.

Heads like these were said to spend too much time on tasks such as unblocking toilets or – God forbid – teaching children. Part of this was said to be ‘avoidance tactics’ to steer clear of the more arduous duties of leadership (monitoring standards, strategic planning and other school improvement tasks). A lot of the headlines emanated from the recent PricewaterhouseCoopers study into school leadership.

New approach to school leadership

Removing the barriers that may prevent a wider range of professionals with the relevant skills from becoming school leaders is just one of the recommendations of a recently published report, the Independent Study into School Leadership. This potentially controversial suggestion is made with the proviso that there must always be a head of teaching and learning who is a qualified teacher.

The report, which was commissioned by the DfES from PricewaterhouseCoopers, examines a range of current and new ideas and practices to boost school standards and deliver more effective management of schools through improved leadership models.

Other key recommendations include:

  • distributing leadership roles among a broader range of staff and developing wider skill sets for the future, with increased expertise in areas such as finance, human resources, collaboration and project management
  • modifying the existing system of pay and reward, although without making radical changes
  • reviewing governance – considering further the interaction of leadership and governance and addressing issues such as the size and composition of governing bodies
  • adopting a new approach towards leadership qualifications and programmes
  • mainstreaming innovative, experienced-based continuous professional development (CPD) activities
  • measuring and managing the change, ensuring that the national steering arrangements for school leadership reform are based on up-to-date, insightful management information and that there is clear ownership of all recommendations being taken forward as the result of the study.

Worth noting:

Current research findings into the nature and importance of effective leadership in schools highlights, among other things, that: school leadership is second only to classroom teaching as an influence on pupil learning; almost all successful leaders draw on the same basic repertoire of leadership practices (the main elements are: building vision, developing people, redesigning the organisation, managing teaching and learning); and that school leadership has a greater influence on schools and students when it is widely distributed.

The remodelling agenda has also been brought into this discussion because it has shown how ‘traditional roles’ in schools can be altered or even abolished to good effect. In particular, the status of teaching assistants has been elevated in tandem with new training and qualifications so that many are able to teach groups and classes in favour of washing out the paint pots. Clerical staff now take on many jobs hitherto the preserve of teachers and budget managers are often incorporated into school senior management teams.

So where does this leave today’s hero heads? Are they really an anachronism in this thrusting new age? If one looks at the PricewaterhouseCoopers study more closely, it does not say that this sort of ‘traditional model’ is past its sell-by date. Indeed, it stresses that the behaviours associated with it are highly successful ie having a focus on learning and teaching, its acceptance by school stakeholders and its clear lines of accountability. Surely, it can be the only model (or set of behaviours) possible in many small primary schools?

I think another factor in its success is that this type of head has been a teacher and probably still teaches for a significant length of time, even if he or she is in a ‘non-teaching’ post. This is because heads need to remember how arduous it is to be a teacher.

Daily challenges

From my own experience, I realise that if one hasn’t been in a classroom for a week or two, the memory of day-to-day challenges fades quickly. When I am in the classroom at short notice, I depend a great deal on the TA and from the resident teacher’s planning to get me through. I find it more difficult than I used to in this situation because there is more of a need to fit in and add to what a class is doing rather than doing a ‘one off’.
However, invariably when I teach a class for at least a half day I come across minor irritations (some of which are caused by my school management), or sometimes very significant shortfalls due to a misguided or outdated school policy or procedure. My staff appreciates seeing me ‘suffer’ the same slings and arrows that they encounter every day. This was particularly true during our last Ofsted inspection when I was observed several times in the classroom when I could have just cowered in my office. 

All this is classic ‘hero’ behaviour, but it serves to illustrate that without regular first-hand experiences in the classroom, heads can never fully appreciate the reality of the school as experienced by children, teachers and TAs. This is also true of other areas of school life and once again I draw from my own experience. For the last term and a half, due to illness, we have been without our site manager and caretaker. We have had extra cleaning time, but only minimal caretaking cover because we could not afford the insurance for full cover and I never thought both people would be off on long-term sick leave (a failure in leadership and management one could argue, but I’ll conveniently leave that on one side).

As a result, I have had to do some quite menial duties so that the school could run as smoothly as possible. I now know why it takes over an hour to lock up at night and that it is not the hourly paid caretaker being on a ‘go-slow’. I realise the frustration caused by teachers leaving computers on and windows open, especially when this is only noticed once the school is completely locked with the alarms set. I know what it is like to get up in the middle of the night for an alarm call-out caused by an ill-judged dangly display which has triggered the sensors. I’ve mopped floors and cleared up sick and realise how physically draining this is.

Heightened understanding

What I’m saying is that it has been good for me to experience all these things. It has improved my emotional intelligence and heightened my respect for the jobs staff do. Above all it has galvanised me into taking small/immediate and strategic/long-term actions in relation to school systems and procedures with a view to improving staff morale and the way the school operates. Sometimes I think school leaders (or leaders of any sort) can be too ‘strategic’. A lot of school improvement isn’t rocket science – the devil is in the detail and one can only see this detail if one gets off  the pedestal.

Being an active head, also allows one to empower others to improve things for themselves. This is part of ‘distributed leadership’, but it is done without the need of an action plan, performance indicator or a vast system of monitoring and evaluation (may I hastily add that all these have their place if a school is to consistently improve).

I have mentioned emotional intelligence (EQ). Another aspect of this for a head is to realise that many tasks undertaken by school staff have a significant emotional dimension, particularly those who deal directly with the children. A good primary practitioner knows that the learning process is all about winning hearts as well as minds. The relationship between the learner and teacher/TA is vital. As well as being the basis of job satisfaction, it can also be the basis of stress for all concerned. We have all seen teachers who have stepped back from this and as a result become ineffective. Sometimes this is for their own emotional ‘survival’ because they have been doing the job for too long, or they were not suited for it in the first place. Cynics might say that some of them also avoid emotional damage by becoming heads!

Empowering others

The PricewaterhouseCoopers report says that school leadership is second only to classroom teaching as an influence on pupil learning. If this is the case and taking what I have described above into account, I think we need more hero heads and not fewer.

A true hero head will distribute leadership and empower others, have a strategic overview for the school and be innovative in the deployment of staff and the creation of new roles in the school befitting the school improvement agenda. But this hero will also be in tune with the staff on an emotional level and know through experience what it feels like to do other jobs within the school; to experience the pain and the pleasure of working with colleagues and children in the classroom and to be responsible for the mental helath of everyone in the school. Will the new ‘fast-track’ heads or non-teacher heads be able to do this?