Mutant heroes break the mould

Tim Andrew

Schools should stop relying on a lone, conventional superhead to save them, says Tim Andrew

In 1971, Frank Musgrave published this definition of good leaders: "The good leader is aloof and gives praise sparingly. He hoards approval, keeps it scarce, and so maintains its value. He communicates infrequently with his subordinates and, if he is a school headmaster, he is unlikely to have taken courses in educational administration. If he prides himself on running 'one big happy family', he is probably a disaster."

In many ways we have moved on, but possibly not as far as one would expect.

More than 70 years ago, reflecting on the lessons of the First World War, Basil Liddell Hart wrote: "For good or bad (the First World War) has shattered our faith in idols, our hero-worshipping belief that great men are different clay from common men. Leaders are still necessary - but our awakened realisation of their common humanity is a safeguard against either expecting from them or trusting in them too much."

We may have abandoned the autocrat, possibly, but too many people - including our political masters and mistresses - still seem to look for the heroic leader who turns a school around in six months. Alas, we still seem to want to believe in superheads.

And now we have national standards for headship. They omit to mention the essential skill of being able to run into a telephone box and emerge almost immediately wearing cape and underpants over trousers, but everything else is there.

Of course, we should analyse the qualities of effective leaders and learn as much as possible from them, but as usual, what we get is a template we must all fit, the mould into which we must all be squeezed. The recently published Guidance on the mandatory requirement to hold the National Professional Qualification for Headship extends to 37 pages.

One of the National College for School Leadership's more interesting and enjoyable recent publications is a small study of five highly successful heads. They sound quite unlike anything that fits a common mould. They were described as having the highest personal and professional standards, being driven by a passion to do the best for their students and as intensely competitive. On the other hand, none suffered fools gladly, they had low boredom thresholds and they were unconventional and anti-authoritarian, qualities that are hardly likely to figure in our current Government's list of desired attributes for school leaders. Interestingly, none had a deep-seated desire initially to teach or to aspire to headship.

We seem also to forget the importance of context. In my formative years I spent a good deal of time on the terraces of the Baseball Ground supporting that perennial lost cause of sport: Derby County. Looking back, that time feels like one long goalless draw against Cardiff City played in the sleet in front of a silent crowd of 1,500 fellow sufferers.

And then Brian Clough arrived with Peter Taylor and wrought a miracle. He did even more with equally unpromising material at Nottingham Forest. Less well remembered are his periods at Leeds and Brighton: different contexts and rather different levels of success.

Schools are no different. They have unique personalities and issues which require different types of leaders. While we all know of leaders with a chameleon-like ability to adapt to any situation, the fact remains that most people find the greatest success within a certain context.

As benchmarks for leadership, the national standards are fine, but I cannot accept that all those qualities can or should be invested in one person.

The Secondary Heads Association believes in and has pioneered the concept of the leadership team. A group of leaders working together will ensure all the characteristics needed to run a school are in place - and it acts as a critical friend to make sure progress is in the right direction.

Distributing leadership beyond the head provides more stability and helps push the boundaries of what is possible.

Distributed leadership, which is not dependent on the hero or autocrat, requires trust and openness. It is grown, not mandated. It requires a head who is confident enough to admit that he or she does not have all the answers.

Among all the national standards, templates and toolkits, let us leave room for the mavericks and eccentrics. The teachers who really inspired any of us probably would not have fitted any national framework. And as a biologist, I know it is the mutations that give the possibility of evolution and the improvement of the gene pool.

I also know that most mutations fail, so I am not arguing that all teachers and schools should be mavericks. But we need to give space for innovation and difference that goes beyond the spreading of approved "best practice".

This is an extract of the speech Tim Andrew, president of the Secondary Heads Association, is giving to the annual conference in Brighton today

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