Freedom and autonomy for schools works only when the education system has enough good and outstanding school leaders, who are well trained in leadership and management of learning, finances and people. With the virtual demise of the National College for Teaching and Leadership, the extensive training and support that school leaders need has severely diminished. Too many schools are becoming secret gardens whose internal practices are unobserved. The absence of any form of effective local accountability for academies and free schools (regional schools commissioners cannot know what is happening in every academy in their region – the regions are too large and the commissioners’ offices are understaffed) means that poor leadership, and all the misery this brings for school staff and students, goes unchecked for too long. In the process, staff morale nosedives, student unhappiness increases and the school community is damaged.
I hear teachers’ tales of poor, ineffective and, on occasion, downright appalling school leadership just too often. Recently I met teachers who work in a poorly led and inadequately governed academy.
They told me:
- The headteacher routinely shouted at and bullied teachers and support staff, and those not in the head’s favour left the school without advance notice – they were called "the disappeared".
- The headteacher stalked the corridors, barged into classrooms and deemed a teacher inadequate (after her last observation was outstanding) because she had not written differentiated learning objectives on the board.
- Another teacher was told she was on "amber alert" when the "pupil class champion" didn't stand to greet the headteacher during a period of the lesson when the child was immersed in his work.
- Pupils walking around the school in groups of more than five were automatically placed in detention.
- After-school clubs, lunchtime clubs, and after-school meetings, often called at short notice, were effectively compulsory, making it impossible for staff to manage personal and family commitments.
- Appallingly sexist attitudes were rife among the senior leadership team (SLT), who disregarded the views of some teachers because they were, and I quote directly here, "menopausal".
Exodus of staff
Not surprisingly teachers were leaving the school in droves. But the school governors did not appear to be concerned about the exodus of staff, nor were they asking why it was happening. No one, it seemed to the teachers who were talking to me, had the authority to hold the headteacher to account for the way they were running the school and managing staff.
I know from our school leader members what an immensely difficult job they have. They need to be experts in leading teaching and learning. They need to have access to the best educational research to support them in making wise decisions about the curriculum, effective teaching and learning strategies, formative and summative assessment and the effective and efficient use of data.
School leaders also need training and development in human resource management, particularly as the demise of local authority specialist HR advice has left many dependent on commercial firms whose knowledge of the school workforce is poor.
Those school leaders who fulfil these criteria (and very, very many do) lead happy institutions where staff and students feel valued and supported.
Challenge is there, but the goals set are realistic, while stretching ATL members who work in such schools tell me teaching is a hard job, but one they love. They are committed to their students and colleagues. There is a collegiate approach in the staffroom, in the school corridors and classrooms. I taught in a school like this, led by an inspirational headteacher, and I still look back at this time in my educational career as the most fulfilling and productive.
Inadequate school leadership results in the opposite situation: ineffective and busy work that blights teachers’ lives; feelings of isolation as a blame culture leaves staff unwilling to innovate or to collaborate in case something does not work and they are blasted in the furnace of SLT disapproval. Such schools generate unproductive work because the school leadership is more concerned with data documentation than with effective practices to promote excellent teaching and learning. As one teacher said to me: “When you have to stamp ‘verbal feedback given’ on pupils’ work, the nadir is reached.”
It has been hard writing this column because it is critical of fellow professionals. But the truth has to be told. Poor leadership practices flourish in too many schools. Governing bodies in these schools often lack the expertise and will to mount effective challenges when things are going wrong and, in the absence of proper checks and balances, a bad situation grows steadily worse. The government knows there is a problem with school leadership. They acknowledge that "unconfident school leadership" is a major driver of school bureaucracy and workload, but appear to be unable, or unwilling, to put systems in place to tackle the blight of poor school leadership where it occurs.