Within the profession, it is assumed that the head of a private school works in a more directive, indeed authoritarian, way than is usual in state primaries. The private-sector head, whose school depends entirely upon the good opinions - and therefore the fees - of parents, feels the need to keep it firmly on the track that the customersprefer.
Now that the Government has tried to make grant-maintained schools compete for pupils and to free from them from local authority control, it is worth asking whether the heads of locally managed and grant-maintained primaries are heading in the same direction. Is the traditional collaborative style under threat?
Research shows that management styles have certainly changed in secondary schools. They are increasingly "adopting styles of management that stress stricter and more bureacratic divisions of labour between senior managers and teacher subordinates", according to Les Bell of John Moores University, Liverpool, David Halpin of Goldsmiths' College, south London, and Sean Neill of Warwick University*. They say that secondaries are keen to compete for pupils "and are seeking more explicit ways of managing and marketing their reputations".
Faced with market reforms, many primary heads expressed, often publicly, a determination not to be drawn either into macho management or down the path of aggressive competition for pupils. The three academics conclude that, while private school heads do indeed "adopt styles which result in more limited staff involvement", state primary heads have generally continued to "identify the need continually and increasingly to involve their staff in collective decision-making, especially in matters relating to the curriculum".
It seems clear from this research among 136 primary schools (92 authority-maintained, 29 grant-maintained, 15 private) that the increase in detailed planning brought about by the national curriculum has actually made state primaries more, rather than less, collaborative. Professor Bell said: "Developments have made it more difficult for the head to be the paramount professional."
As one head involved in the research explained, "I have not got a detailed day-to-day knowledge of the national curriculum. I have to accept that limitation and work within it, using the strength of a strong team within the school."
This, it seems, goes for both state and grant-maintained schools. In private schools, though, the old order apparently holds sway. "I can organise the school as I like, provided the governors are happy with the success of the school," was the response of one private school head. "I have total control. "
On resources and finance, a slightly different picture emerged. For one thing, a difference opens up not just between private and state schools but between state and grant-maintained schools.
"Private school heads retain total control over resource planning; grant-maintained heads veer this way too, but with some sharing of responsibility with colleagues. LEA heads are more inclined to collaborate in this area."
Nevertheless, in all areas of management, the differences of style between state and grant-maintained primaries was less than the difference between all state primaries and the private sector. Interestingly, the research concluded that the increased autonomy provided by both local management and grant-maintained status gave heads more job satisfaction. The researchers found grant-maintained heads more "able to make decisions without regular recourse to an external agency and with a perceived ability to plan, at least over the short term, more effectively".
The extent to which heads enjoy this independence is, Professor Bell says, "very marked. The heads see the value of local authority services, but they are seeking more of an equal partnership now".
Is a satisfied head necessarily a good one? "The extent to which a high level of job satisfaction accords with effective job performance" is a question recognised - but not answered by this research.
* "Managing Self-governing Primary Schools" in Educational Management and Administration,Vol 24, No 3.