Heads' role under the spotlight

Willis Pickard

The 'parrot on the shoulder' and other managerial problems cross national boundaries, says Willis Pickard.

I always had a platonic relationship with syllabuses. Good teaching does not start with a syllabus." The Danish headteacher who took this detached view of his school curriculum has had to change tune. Education law in his country has been reformed, replacing a liberal regime which emphasised the role of the individual teacher with one in which heads have to be more interventionist and management-orientated.

The change is to a regime more familiar on this side of the North Sea - and familiar in particular to a group of English and Scots heads who have joined a team from Denmark in a research project intended to highlight similarities and differences in management practice across the three countries.

The aim is to study what makes for effective leadership. The project, involving 30 schools, is backed by four English authorities (Croydon, Hillingdon and Hounslow, all in London, plus Nottinghamshire), three in Scotland (Central, Lothian and Strathclyde) and three in Denmark.

The first task was to test heads' own perceptions, and interviews were carried out by researchers from the three partners in the project - the Roehampton Institute's centre for educational management, Strathclyde University's quality in education centre and the Royal Danish School of Education.

The heads, from English and Scottish primaries and secondaries and Danish "folkschools", gathered recently in Edinburgh for two days to look together at what they had told the interviewers. Once the problem of nomenclature and acronyms had been at least partly solved ("what is an LEA?" a Danish head reasonably asked, well into the second day), much common ground was identified.

Handling issues of time and staff relations, balancing involvement with the pupils and the curriculum with the need to get through paperwork - these are challenges for heads in any administrative framework. But there were differences, too. Danish heads work less hard, or at least fewer hours than their British counterparts. Whether another Danish finding - that female heads work longer hours than male - would stand up in this country was not revealed.

The most interesting facet of the research concerned conflict. All heads felt isolated when faced with difficult personnel decisions, especially those involving teacher colleagues. One English head told the researchers, "In my second term I had a disciplinary action with a teacher who slapped a child in the playground and although that was absolutely awful, it did enable me to state my own values quite clearly."

All heads saw the need to be visible in their school and to instil their own set of values, for example, by confronting racial attitudes among governors or - in Scottish and Danish terminology - school boards. Techniques of management also crossed national boundaries. There was debate at the Edinburgh meeting as to whether some of these could be described as "manipulative". "Ways to self-preservation" was another way of looking at them.

A Scottish participant had recorded advice given him by a predecessor in the post: "Staff will come to the door with a 'parrot on their shoulder' - a burden they want you to take off them. Ignoring the parrot or refusing to take it off them is important both for your own survival and for their shouldering responsibility."

Kathryn Riley, a professor at Roehampton and principal British researcher on the project with John MacBeath, of Strathclyde University, said a range of other issues was thrown up. What should happen to heads appointed at the age of 40? Should they expect to serve for 20 years or was there a "sell-by date"?

Were some heads reluctant to seek a second post in case, for example, they ran into a difficult governing body? Was there some truth in one head's suggestion that "some who look for grant-maintained status are going through the male menopause, looking for something new and ways of enhancing their pension"?

The second part of the research will examine other people's perceptions of heads' leadership. There will be interviews in the three countries with staff, parents, pupils, members of boards or governing bodies, local authorities and national government. The results will be reported at further seminars, the next of which takes place in Denmark in September.

Professors Riley and MacBeath are keen to emphasise the unusual methodology in the research. Instead of the areas of interest and methods of taking evidence being decided before the funding was allocated, there is provision for the participating heads (the principal interviewees) to have their say in shaping how the project should be changed as it goes along. One purpose of the Edinburgh meeting was to allow them to influence how the second stage of interviews should be set up and conducted.

The research team explains the thinking: "While from a pure research point of view this approach would be seen as problematic, it has many advantages. Examining their role as leaders and opening themselves up to the perceptions of others is bound to affect and change the subjects of this study, who will no doubt be different at the end of the two years."

In the end, however, it is whether different and clearer ideas emerge about what constitutes good leadership in a school that will decide if the local authority backers of the research think they have had value for money.

The initial report on the heads' views, Images of leadership, is available, price Pounds 5 (plus 50p post and packing) from Sales and Publications, Faculty of Education, Strathclyde University, 76 Southbrae Drive, Glasgow G13 1PP.

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Willis Pickard

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