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A little goes a long way

Heads of small schools are making worthwhile journeys to each other's territory to share notes on leadership. Gerald Haigh reports

The National College for School Leadership is clearly working hard to establish the idea that leadership is a concept for all sectors of the profession. "Leading from the middle", a strategic programme for subject leaders, is under way, while another, "leading small primary schools," is completing its pilot stage.

According to Professor Geoff Southworth, NCSL's director of research, it is important to appreciate and support heads of small schools in a way that does not assume they are passing through on their way to something else.

"Many don't see themselves as trainee heads for larger schools. They choose to stay at small schools because they enjoy the dual role of head and teacher. We've sometimes underestimated that."

That is certainly the view of Penny Burnside, head of the 89-pupil Tipton St John C of E primary in Sidmouth, Devon.

"There are lots of us who aren't just practising to be big school heads," she says. "But you never stop wanting to be a better teacher."

Being head of a small school (100 pupils or fewer) sets an almost bizarre range of challenges - the fingers that were down a drain one moment are shaking the hand of a visiting dignitary the next. It is that very "never-a-dull-moment" quality, though, that heads like Penny Burnside relish.

"The other day I had a meeting at County Hall in the morning and in the afternoon I was sitting on the carpet with the reception class. What's important to me is to be allowed to do both."

Integral to that dual role is the fact that small school heads lead their schools very much from the front, as classroom teachers. Their contact with colleagues is close enough for them to show rather than tell how it is done. According to Geoff Southworth, though, they do not always clearly articulate that.

"They lead by example," he says. "But they're so busy doing it that they can lose sight of what the example actually is."

Part of the problem is that small school heads are isolated from each other - not just physically, in rural communities, but also because they tend to be trapped in their schools by teaching commitments and relatively small training budgets.

The programme, therefore, aims to cut through these barriers by putting two or three small school heads in touch with each other - sometimes across authority boundaries - enabling them to visit each other's schools, and to reflect and discuss what they find.

Penny Burnside, for example, was teamed up with two other Devon heads.

"You do a thing called a 'learning walk'," she says.

"When they came here, for example, I told them a bit about the school and then we spent 15 minutes or so looking in each classroom, watching, talking to children and teachers, focusing on how well children understood the learning intentions of the lesson."

In the afternoon, the three heads were joined by a fourth - a "facilitator head" who helped them to reflect more deeply on what they had seen.

The facilitator, says Professor Southworth, is important. "We've learned that many very effective heads aren't necessarily successful learners unless someone is facilitating that learning."

"When you go visiting another school you can pick up other things, but you may not concentrate on the leadership. The facilitator keeps the three on task, thinking carefully about leadership."

Visiting other schools says Professor Southworth, makes you think more clearly about your own school. "It's the anthropology thing," he says.

"When you go somewhere else you learn more about home than about where you're visiting."

Penny Burnside agrees, and points out that hosting the visit to your own school is at least as important as being a visitor elsewhere.

"It makes you reflect on what you're doing - you have to go deeper, to think how you've made something happen, and what you need to do next."

Each head had a day's supply cover for each visit - something of a rare opportunity for a head of a small school - which made it possible to stand back from the sometimes frenetic pace of being both a head and a class teacher.

"It meant we could reflect on what we were doing and move forward rather than just concentrating on maintenance," Penny Burnside says.

"Leading small primary schools" finished its pilot stage this summer.

Details of national roll-out are to be announced. Contact details on the NCSL website at "Leading from the middle":

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