Skip to main content

Give us leaders, not managers

The Teacher Training Agency and education authorities have missed the point in their headship-grooming plans, says Geoffrey Samuel

I am convinced that Anthea Millett's Teacher Training Agency totally lacks the ability to choose heads. I am not questioning the desirability of a new national qualification for heads. But I do find that the approach of the TTA is fundamentally flawed.

The voluminous documentation of the consultation process bears the hallmarks of bureaucratic civil servants sitting in their committees with their shoals of "advisers". In truth, they cannot see the wood for the trees.

Try this simple test. Analyse a number of unfavourable Office for Standards in Education reports and ask yourself whether success in the TTA course would have any impact whatsoever on the critical comments.

A successful course has to be based on an accurate focus on the two or three elements of good headship. After 23 years as a head I can identify two of the most important factors.

The first is leadership: not management, but leadership. In my experience there are a number of successful approaches to leadership. The highest form is the enabler, the motivator: I have nothing but admiration for heads in this category. In cricket, we think immediately of Mike Brearley, who could not only handle Ian Botham but inspire him to new heights while simultaneously producing a team.

With the enabler-head, the staff can say - and believe - "we did it for ourselves". Quite simply, staff over-achieve. But there is a disadvantage. With the removal of the enabler: people revert to their natural level. There follows a period of gradual decline.

More common, and easier to achieve, is the conviction-leader: the head with vision. But vision itself is not enough. It must be accompanied by an indomitable determination to make things happen. It is an act of sheer willpower. Too often leaders faced with opposition fudge or compromise or simply back down.

The youngest of our former staff to rise to headship (there have been 16, but she was 34 at the time) was told by governors: "We appointed you because you convinced us that you would deliver what you promised."

There is a price to pay for conviction-leaders: often opposition is unspoken or bluntly suppressed. The departure of the leader is followed by a period when the papered-over cracks gape open. Could anyone have been an effective successor to Margaret Thatcher?

Then, there is the paradox of the manager-leader. Often seen as a manipulator, this type of leader has unfailing short-term tactical sense. They are the men and women of the moment, unsurpassed in hand-ling the immediate issues but bereft of any strategic purpose.

One thinks immediately of Harold Wilson. Such leaders are ideal at restoring confidence and self-esteem to a battered team: ideal heads for near-failing schools. But they have served their purpose within three or four years.

Does the proposed national qualification for heads have anything worthwhile to deliver in training for leadership? It may be said that leaders are born, not made. The experience of the Armed Services proves otherwise.

The second quality is even more elusive. Some 20 years ago, Harry Hall, the leader of Richmond Council on which I also served, told me that "bad heads are bad pickers - and gather a bad staff around them", though "bad" needs to be qualified: a "bad" teacher in the one context could be ideally suited to another.

Some years ago as a deputy head, I was party to the rejection of an outstanding candidate in favour of a palpable mediocrity. It was our judgment that the personality clash between the better applicant and the head of department wouldhave been little short of cataclysmic.

How do you become a "good picker"? Of course we must accept that some heads, particularly if they are advised by local education authorities, insist that every appointment is a political statement. Ruled by political correctness, equal opportunities and other such approaches they proclaim their beliefs to the world through the medium of their appointments.

Pity their poor pupils! I have often wondered why my generally successful record in appointments as a head is more than balanced by some dire decisions to which I was party as a councillor.

I suspect that I have been influenced by the approach attributed to some Japanese companies: they, it is suggested, look for applicants sympathetic to the style and ethos of the company, who are genuinely anxious to get the job. Such people, they believe, will be motivated to make up any deficiencies in skills or competencies. (Of course, this approach is not available to inflexible adherents of person-specification.) A councillor appointing a chief officer or a governing body selecting a head is differently placed when the challenge is to find a leader rather than a subordinate.

In short, I do not know how you train a potential head to be a "good picker". But of one thing I am certain: the TTA's proposed course has nothing worthwhile to contribute to this issue.

But, above all else, it is the involvement of local education authorities which has forfeited my confidence in this proposal. If there are inadequate heads - and there are a number - where does the responsibility lie? Certainly LEAs which have either been party to, or totally responsible for, the heads' selection must bear the major part of the blame. To involve them in any way with either devising or delivering a course for potential heads defies credibility.

* Geoffrey Samuel is head of the Heath-land School, Hounslow, Middlesex

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you