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Lead on beyond plateau

The Primary Leadership Programme is helping schools to move on to greater things

Do you know what "dispersed leadership" is? I once knew a head who clearly didn't. He was attending a fellow head's funeral when it started to rain, whereupon he went to a phone box at the cemetery gates and rang the school to cancel games.

Among the last of a recognisable breed, he was well regarded and reckoned to be successful. Now, though, the belief is that if some schools are to do more than make marginal year-on-year improvements, they need help in bringing their colleagues into the leadership loop. Hence the concept of dispersed leadership, which has been given currency for primary schools through the Primary Leadership Programme (PLP).

An initiative of the National College for School Leadership (NCSL) with the Primary Strategy, and claimed as the first leadership programme of its kind anywhere in the world, the PLP began in 20034 in 3,500 schools.

Paul Bennett of the NCSL, who is the project director, says: "The programme was initially targeted at the 25 per cent of schools that weren't improving as well as the others. The intention was to move them on."

Now, though, the focus has broadened, and the programme this year involves another 3,500 schools, plus 1,000 continuing on from last year. This means that if you have not yet heard of the PLP then it is likely you soon will - and that, in the fullness of time, your school, together with every other primary, will be involved.

The PLP package, delivered in partnership with the local authority, includes 15 days of cover during which heads work to develop their leadership teams. There is also some extra attention from literacy and numeracy consultants, and, importantly, a partnership with a "consultant leader" - an experienced serving head who is given time to visit and work with a small group of PLP schools on their own perceived priorities.

Mr Bennett says of the programme so far: "It's helped leadership teams to work more collaboratively with greater confidence."

This is exactly the experience at the 300-pupil All Saints primary in Nuneaton, Warwickshire, for example, where head Sally Kaminski-Gaze found that the programme arrived (in September 2003) some three years into her headship just as she was working on building the confidence of her senior colleagues.

"The facility for four key members of staff to meet away from school, for a whole morning on several occasions, to talk together and plan the way forward, was very important," she says.

Her aim was to help them see that they really could take on high levels of responsibility.

"You have to be able to truly delegate, to provide opportunity for people to take on responsibility," she says. "You still guide the school, of course, but you keep hold of the reins in a slightly different way."

It is a view shared by maths co-ordinator and leadership team member Julia Clarke. Working with Mrs Kaminski-Gaze on the PLP taught her, she says, not only to accept responsibility as a subject manager, but to give responsibility to others - the newly-qualified teachers she mentors, for example.

"Before, I always wanted to do everything," she says. "But I've learned so much from working with Sally. I've learned what a true team really is."

The other key component in the PLP is the partnership with a consultant head - this year there are 1,740 of them - about one primary head in 10.

Mrs Kaminski-Gaze worked with Joyce James, of Northlands primary across the county in Rugby, in a relationship that is good for both of them.

"Some days it's been tricky leaving my school," says Mrs James, "But my governors were supportive and I've definitely benefited. It does you good as a head to get out and bring back examples of good practice."

The consultant's status as a serving head is crucial and clearly important to Mrs Kaminski-Gaze. "She's doing the same job and facing the same challenges," she says.

But does the PLP pay off in teaching and learning? The answer seems to be that it does, which is why the programme is continuing and growing, with funding assured for the next academic year at least.

All Saints has seen dramatic improvements in Year 6 test results in the past year, and a survey of all the PLP schools shows an improvement in level 4 percentages slightly better than in other schools - 2.4 per cent against 1.8 per cent in English, and 2 per cent against 1.2 per cent in maths - figures described by the NCSL as "small percentage increases, but significant given the four-year plateau in KS2 results".

It seems likely, though, that rather than a quick fix, the PLP is about building the conditions for success, and giving heads the professional tools with which they can release the leadership skills that lie within their own staffrooms.

That will, in some cases, take time as people are won over and given new confidence in themselves. Nevertheless, the "plateau" that the programme speaks of, and the frustration it creates, will be familiar to many colleagues, and the prospect of being helped to climb beyond it will be attractive to them.

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