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Leadership - Run your school with military precision

Being a headteacher can be a battle - so follow these tips from a top army academy to ensure you and your staff are fighting fit

Being a headteacher can be a battle - so follow these tips from a top army academy to ensure you and your staff are fighting fit

Comparing your school to a battleground and referring to staff as your troops may not be the best tactic for a school leader - particularly if you are standing in front of parents of prospective students at the time. The connotations are unhelpful if you are attempting to portray a friendly, welcoming environment (wrong though those connotations may be).

And yet there is much truth to the idea. The role of a headteacher - and teachers in general - has many parallels with the responsibilities of an army officer. Essentially, both are about the welfare and education of those in your charge.

So is there a way for school leaders to strengthen their own skills and the skills of future leaders by borrowing techniques used to train the army leaders of tomorrow at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst in Surrey, England?

I would say yes. Three aspects of both careers stand out as being comparable.

Credibility in front of staff

To ensure credibility, senior officers must continue to be competent in basic skills. They must be safe and accurate using a weapon, physically fit, a competent navigator and capable of formulating plans, communicating effectively and providing clear direction: in essence, they have to lead by example. Do enough school leaders do likewise and maintain their knowledge of the curriculum and an ability to take a basic lesson or step in occasionally to demonstrate skills to junior teachers?

Valuing staff contribution

The contribution and opinions of individual soldiers and junior officers are key. Hardware, machinery and technology all come a clear second to manpower. A trained and motivated soldier is at the heart of success, and will often be the source of solutions if involved in planning and given the opportunity to contribute. Are teachers valued by their school leaders above the curriculum, buildings or students, and do teachers get the opportunity to provide input into planning decisions?

Trusting staff to deliver

British military doctrine teaches "mission command", empowering subordinates to achieve success without unnecessary management restrictions. Do school leaders do enough to encourage flair and initiative in achieving educational outcomes?

The following core objectives from Sandhurst could in most instances also be applied to the training of future school leaders: to develop commanders of courage and willpower with the temperament for decisive action; to foster attitudes to integrity, selflessness and loyalty that set the soldier apart; to teach officer cadets how to think and communicate as commanders and to foster a deep interest and care for the individual; to train them in the basic skills and battlefield disciplines of soldiering.

In addition, field exercises provide an excellent opportunity to subject cadets to the physical demands of operating in rugged and demanding conditions, adding to the psychological pressure of performing in allocated "command appointments". It is under these conditions that cadets learn both their own and each other's strengths and weaknesses, instilling teamwork and cohesion within platoons so that they can complete the set missions. As a school leader, do you give your middle and senior management the time and environment to build a team ethos and to rehearse what you expect them to do in real situations?

Underpinning the practical and intellectual elements of training are the army's core values, which shape and guide the behaviour of soldiers and officers. These values are a "lifestyle guideline" for army personnel, not just a code of conduct for the workplace, and they are instilled and implemented from the most formative stages of training. Standards are maintained by an effective discipline system that quickly addresses breaches.

For any leader, it is essential to ensure that everyone conforms to the same values, so that you can effectively manage both the people and the organisation. Whether the member of staff is a newly qualified teacher or a recent recruit with bags of experience, it is essential that the school's core values are properly communicated to them through training and that they are upheld. And it is the school leader's responsibility to make this happen.

Military and school leadership have many parallels, and I am sure there are lessons that we, as a military establishment, can take from schools as much as vice versa. I believe we share a great deal in our roles already, not least the notion of "serve to lead", which is the Sandhurst motto.

Alistair Harbison is a major in the Royal Irish Regiment posted to the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst as a company commander to mentor cadets through the Officer Commissioning Course. He was talking to Simon Creasey

What else?

Eyes right: is imposing army-style discipline in schools going over the top? bit.lyArmyDisciplineSchools

In short

  • Leadership in education and the military is similar in a lot of ways, so tips from training army officers could help school leaders in their role.
  • Credibility, valuing your staff and gaining their trust are key elements of army leadership and are equally applicable to school leadership.
  • A key area of military training is giving soldiers the opportunity to practise and refine the roles you expect them to fill in a way that builds teamwork. This would also be useful in a school setting.
  • Having a strong set of values that everyone abides by is essential to successful leadership, and these values have to be upheld outside the workplace as well as within it. School leaders should take responsibility for ensuring that this is communicated.

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