No more heroes

Heads have to drop the 'super' if they are to foster community relationships, says Nigel Gann.

Running a school is not enough of a job for headteachers any more. They have to strengthen the community too - at least, that's what the latest addition to the National Standards for Headteachers suggests.

"School improvement and community development are interdependent", says the sixth standard. Well, it was ever thus - there is at last a recognition that the most significant factors in under-achievement in schools are the neighbourhood and family from which the pupil comes.

Good schools have always been a focus for their communities. Teddy O'Neill, who opened Prestolee school, Lancashire in the 1920s, knew that; so did Henry Morris in Cambridgeshire - he even thought it possible that the Village College would replace the church as the hub of the community.

Stewart Mason developed community colleges in Leicestershire that served as a model for rural and urban community education that flourished in the 1970s and 80s.

Despite the hard-headed functionalism of the 1980s and 90s, which seemed to proclaim that the only thing worth doing in schools was to raise test results, some schools kept the faith that schools can only be truly effective when they relate to the community which is served by them - and which owns them.

The recognition that all schools need to accept this, and the understanding that the Department for Education and Skills is keen to encourage schools to consider extended status, brings home to us something more: the "heroic" model of school leadership is certainly not to be recommended for a school that wants to work in partnership with its community.

The sixth standard assumes different ways of regarding the community: as citizens and owners, rather than as consumers. In the traditional model of school-community relationships, parents are seen as:

* free from responsibility for quality, except where they may complain when it falls below the standard expected;

* not involved in the setting of standards, so complaints depend upon the failure of the school to match standards it has set itself;

* acting out of self-interest, rather than as a member of a potentially powerful group;

* reactive to services rather than proactive - choosing from a provided menu;

* having a one-dimensional provider-recipient relationship with the school;

* having a simplistic relationship with the world, passively accepting what is offered.

But in a partnership model citizens are seen as:

* potentially responsible for direction, content and quality;

* committed in the long term to the community, with a complex set of relationships within it;

* acting in the interests of others as well as of themselves;

* proactive: initiating change rather than responding to it;

* likely to have a complex understanding of their relationship with the world, through a measure of control and a capacity for individual growth.

This means that institutional leaders have to go about things differently.

Here are some suggestions for heads who want to work collaboratively with governors, parents, and the rest of the community:

* don't always be right - other people wonder why they're there if you can do it all yourself;

* in fact, don't always know. The words "I don't know" used by someone in authority open doors for others;

* give two or three alternatives when asked for suggestions with the pros and cons for each;

* don't always sit in the same place at meetings to avoid establishing a "power-place";

* try not to sit behind a desk at small meetings;

* explain things so that everyone can understand without being patronising;

* remember that the school doesn't belong to you - long after you're gone, the community will still be there;

* listen in a supportive, not an adversarial way, and don't feel you always have to defend yourself;

* above all - don't be super! You're not supposed to be doing it all by yourself.

The days of the heroic superhead may, thankfully, be numbered. The key to successful new leadership is to find a body to whom you are genuinely accountable. This should, of course, be the governing body.

This means changing the way you might do things and enabling, training and coaching people on how to hold you accountable ("holding the headteacher and the professional staff to account for the school's performance" is the statutory duty that governors seem to do least well).

Many communities, especially those who have been least powerful and confident, will be surprised and a bit threatened, by the invitation to hold professionals accountable. They may at first not want to do it - but remember that for at least 150 years we have been telling people to keep their noses out of our business. It won't be surprising if they take a bit of time to believe and trust a new message.

Nigel Gann is a consultant in education and community development.



"Schools exist in a distinctive social context, which has a direct impact on what happens inside the school. School leadership should commit to engaging with the internal and external school community to secure equity and entitlement. Headteachers should collaborate with other schools in order to share expertise and bring positive benefits to their own and other schools. They should work collaboratively at both strategic and operational levels with parents and carers and across multiple agencies for the well-being of all children.

Headteachers share responsibility for leadership of the wider educational system and should be aware that school improvement and community development are interdependent."

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