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Heads who win, heads who lose

Kathryn Riley and Pat Mahony look at leadership styles in three countries.

While much has been written about the relative effectiveness of different leadership styles, less is known about how leaders operate in schools, the extent to which competing expectations about headship shape the style and form of leadership or how far leadership style is governed by the political, economic or social context of the school.

These issues have been the focus of a collaborative international project on "Effective Leadership in a Time of Change", largely funded by local authorities and led by Roehampton Institute, the Royal Danish School of Education and Strathclyde University, with a parallel study being undertaken at Griffith University in Australia.

So far, our analysis of the English, Danish and Scottish results suggest that management of time is an increasingly important issue in all countries because of the growing demands on school leaders. Heads expect to work hard and in England and Scotland, they do not believe that the amount of time required to do the job will diminish. In the English sample, heads work between 50 and 70 hours a week, with most identifying 55 hours as the norm while Scottish heads work 45 to 60 hours per week. For Danish heads this consistency of response was not apparent. Some worked 56 hours a week and others 33. Size, the nature of the school, whether this is a first, second or even third headship do not appear to influence the hours worked or the proportion of time spent on administration. Creating a balance between the different facets of their work is a constant challenge.

Conflict is an inherent part of the job in all three countries and heads deal with its impact on a whole range of relationships: teacher-teacher, teacher-pupil, or teacher-parent. The ability to manage conflict successfully is generally seen as one of the most significant challenges of effective leadership and there are some indications that in handling conflict, male heads are more likely to feel isolated than their female counterparts.

Heads have to juggle the competing claims of parents, pupils, teachers, the local community and national government but in doing so they also take the opportunity to assert their own educational values.

Maintaining visibility both in and out of school was seen by heads as an important function of leadership. Heads placed different emphases on where to maintain a high profile according to their priorities in improving the school.

Countries differed in their understanding of, and approach to, curriculum leadership. For the first time in Denmark, heads are now legally required to exercise a closer interest in teaching and learning. In England, curriculum leadership has traditionally been the role of headteachers, although in recent years other demands have taken over.

In Scotland, where the powers and responsibilities of the local education authority have not yet changed, headteachers continue to exert strong curriculum leadership in primary schools, and to a lesser extent, in secondary schools.

Professor Kathryn Riley is director of the Centre for Educational Management and Pat Mahony is reader in educational studies, Faculty of Education, Roehampton Institute London.

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