The recruitment and retention crisis in schools in England is having a major impact. Improvement is difficult and crucial developments have to be put on hold. What is really interesting, however, is the far-reaching effects staff shortages seem to be having on leadership.
It is now common to find very young people holding down roles which only a few months ago would have been considered the province of staff with many years' experience. In some schools almost all the key posts are being filled by teachers only two or three years out of initial training. In some subject areas (particularly maths and languages) all members of the department have three or four extra salary points. Money for staff salaries has to go where the need is greatest, so schools are reducing the numbers of deputy heads, getting rid of "second in department" posts and generally flattening the structure to free up money for shortage subjects.
All of this has huge implications for leadership practices in schools. It seems an opportune time to re-examine training. If we aim to achieve sustained improvements in schools, we will have to use fully the talents of all staff . This means training them very early in their careers in essential leadership and management skills. In a fast-changing and unpredictable world, it makes sense to give people basic "survival skills" which will allow them to prosper whatever the world throws at them. Trained young staff can then step in to leadership roles with confidence .
We need a "spiral leadership" model where the key elements of leadership (collecting data, handling difficult interviews, chairing meetings, making presentations - indeed everything contained in the National Professional Qualification for Headship) is taught to all staff when they join a school. As their experience increases the same areas can be studied in greater depth. NPQH and other leadership qualifications would still be valid but build on work already covered. Put another way, I am not sure that the concept of "senior" or "middle manager" training still holds good in these flexible times and we should start to think in terms of leadership skills for all staff.
(Incidentally I think we should re-label NPQH as a qualification in "leadership" because we are raising the expectations of those who get it that they will eventually become heads, which clearly will not happen in all cases. Either that or we need more stringent NPQH assessment so those candidates who do not demonstrate the right leadership qualities are not misled about their future professional chances.) Delivery of leadership training for all staff would not be easy but it should be possible to:
* devise a core package along the lines of the National Standards for Team Leaders but aimed specifically at leadership skills for all;
* run this internally in the schools with any support grant paid only on completion of training; and
* integrate this scheme easily with existing leadership programmes as people gain experience.
Of course, many schools have already attempted to get rid of the "pyramid" staff structure, involve every person in leadership and encourage a culture of flexibility and adaptability. In these schemes it is vital to establish core leadership values and qualities at the heart of everything that is done. People are expected to be inventive and creative in their own right, but their role as part of the whole also needs to be fully understood.
Far too often we hear "the blockage to progress in my school is at middle-manager level" or "senior management do not support the staff and have no real idea of what is going on". Both are blinkered views and express the symptom rather than the structural cause. We have to stop thinking of school staffing structures as pyramids and start to view them as sets of Lego. Each piece has essentially the same core function, some can perform several crucial roles, others only used in a straightforward way, but the whole structure can be demolished and rebuilt continuously as needs change.
We have therefore to equip all people with the essential leadership skills as early as possible in their careers, encourage them to see their role as a central part in an ever-changing, flexible team structure and give them the freedom to operate in an inventive, adaptable way.
The difficulties of recruitment and retention are already forcing schools to re-think traditional structures, but if we truly want to use fully the talents of all of our staff, it is surely time to reconsider the concept of middle or senior management teams directing teachers from the top. In a fast-changing world everyone needs to be a trained leader.
Professor Sir Bob Salisbury is a member of the centre for research on teacher and school development at Nottingham University