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Daring to lead from touchline

The story of a headteacher whose staff felt he delegated too much has struck a chord with TES readers who have written in to share their leadership insights. Here Mike Cooper kicks off

A recent contributor to the leadership pages gave an excellent resume of a successful school ("Head's tale turns on teamwork", TES, May 13). It's obviously a place where parents want to send their children, but, it seems, is not one where staff are happy to work.

I too could write about plans for workforce reform, with pastoral staff appointed from people in support or clerical positions, careers education taken on by mentors, and learning support staff being managed by higher level teaching assistants. And all long before the recent spate of advertisements for pastoral managers in preparation for teacher learning responsibility payments.

What's more, I can describe a drive towards distributed leadership by investing colleagues in low-status roles with power and responsibility. I resist the temptation to produce a list of accolades that come the way of our school, and will settle for the view that we have a mutually supportive group of colleagues who are working wonders in challenging circumstances and are generally happy in their work.

A staff delegation to decry the lack of leadership and support for colleagues, as described by the anonymous headteacher in question, cannot be imagined in my circumstances. That is not to say that there are not grounds for my own performance to be improved, however, as I remind myself when I attempt self review.

So what is the difference? I would suggest it is to do with ethos. The emotional intelligence within the organisation must not be misread. Every school is different. What works in one place could be doomed to failure in another. A blame-free culture encourages people to take risks in the knowledge that, although they will be held to account and steps will be taken to ensure that there is learning from mistakes, there will not be an onerous weight of responsibility on any individual.

A school where everyone works alongside each other in a truly collegiate culture will be more successful, and a headteacher viewed as first among equals is more likely to attract the support of colleagues.

This confidence is not easily won or effortlessly retained. Headteachers are not a class apart, and schools are no different from other organisations. Education managers who are not teachers at heart are on the verge of becoming peripheral and even resented by those at the chalkface.

Bill Shankly's famous quote (or misquote), "Any manager who is not a trainer is an impostor", still rings true to many of us who share the daily coaching and coaxing job that is involved in leading others.

"Working alongside" means high-visibility break, gate and bus duties, as well as regular classroom visiting or sharing the daily cover rota. It means learning the ins and outs of the jobs of others. It involves laughing, crying and sharing exasperation together. Positive stroking is not management gone soft, but a wise leadership tool where thank-you notes, praise and encouragement are the order of the day. Targets and accountability are essentials, but no substitute for empathy or caring.

Humour, putting yourself out for colleagues and arranging little treats are all ingredients in the complicated mix that leads to successful organisations.

People in education do not expect their leaders to be expert in anything other than good leadership. Good leaders often put the manual to one side, and some of the best may never have read it anyway!

Mike Cooper has been a headteacher for five years.Any leadership insights you want to share? Write to

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