Learning to lead in aclimate of change

Recent research has produced important new findings about how primary headteachers are tackling the constant changes they are required to introduce. The study, which focused on Grampian, used a questionnaire and interview to find out how heads viewed these shifts in policy, and how they saw their role in implementing change in their own school.

Heads were most supportive of the curricula for 5-14, and least supportive of Government policy on self-governing schools. They regarded school development planning and planned activity time as likely to improve education, teaching and learning. Views on devolved management were mixed because, a term before starting implementation, heads believed they had little information to enable them to make a judgment. School boards were not perceived as beneficial and were largely considered inconsequential to teaching and learning.

Many commentators have suggested that if change is "imposed" or imported into an organisation then it is all the more difficult to implement successfully. However, the research illustrates that some heads are better equipped than others to manage the changes. The research identified four distinctive "types".

* Mapmakers demonstrated a powerful combination of people and task-oriented skills. They were able to think strategically and apply synergy to their work. Their work was set within a vision for the school. In this way, they were able to prioritise the tasks that were most likely to contribute to their goals for the school. Mapmakers were "leading" change.

* Routefinders had been able to make progress with individual changes, and were aware of the need to "pull them altogether". They had not yet managed to develop the interconnections between the various policies and practices in their school.

* The disoriented were aware of all of the changes but almost overwhelmed by them. Their approach was reactive and they were doing all in their power to keep their heads above water.

* The disengaged, of whom readers will be relieved to know there was only one identified in this study, did not favour the changes and was taking the minimum action to ensure that he was not "culpable". His was a custodial function.

The same research found that the problems experienced by heads were similar for male and female heads, for teaching as well as full-time heads, for more experienced heads as well as the less experienced. The problems experienced by heads, and the "solutions" they developed, were not dissimilar to those reported in industrial and commercial organisation, often considerably larger. "Seat of the pants" management was acknowledged as the uncomfortable position of many heads.

Heads are not unique in their approaches to change, nor in the dilemmas they face. The good news would appear to be that heads can both benefit from and contribute to the solutions generated by managers in other organisations. Thus, the potential for generic training could be considerable. What might be the goals of such training and what forms might it take?

These headteacher types are hierarchical in so far as most heads aspired to the mapmaker as the most effective head. Each of these types, however, provides a profile from which training could be devised to support heads to develop the skills needed to enable them to operate more effectively, for example: create mapmakers from routefinders, reorient the disoriented, engage the disengaged and, not least, sustain the mapmakers. The research advocates training which is conducted in situ, as part of a process of developing the school (staff and head), rather than as an isolated event (or two).

All heads need appropriate support. This is increasingly necessary as each school operates more independently of the local authority. Many have argued for more research and design in industry. Yet by comparison, the public sector has traditionally invested even less. As one head remarked: "I think the expectations (of heads) are very high, with so little training and when there is no induction . . . society should be very concerned about it."

The head and his staff are pivotal to the entire school system. They deserve training to help them to move forwards. The research concludes that heads need to be helped to lead learning organisations, as well as organisations for learning. As one observed: teaching and learning must be at the heart of the school.

Linda Leighton-Beck undertook the research within the education department of Aberdeen University.

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