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One for all turns into all for one

The story of a head whose staff felt he delegated too much has struck a chord with TES readers. Here Mark Garbett shares his leadership insights

There can't be many organisations where a significant number of professionals, say 50, some less-qualified adults, say 20, serve hundreds of younger people, day after day, within the rhythms of the academic year.

The overall responsibility for school leadership lies with the headteacher.

But hasn't the notion of a "superhead" been discredited? Schools can only be improved and taken forward with strong leadership, but the second prerequisite is that all staff work together as one team, towards the shared vision and purpose.

One definition of leadership is "working through other people". In the five years I have been in post, I have spoken about and put into practice the principle of distributed leadership. This is, to my mind, not about shifting responsibility from a senior management team, but about empowering all staff to feel that they have something to offer in terms of ideas, strategic thinking and implementing the grand project of continuous improvement in every school.

At my school, particular activities initiated and delivered by staff have included:

* Volunteering to have a video taken of their lesson, then discussing it at an in-service day.

* A teacher governor convening and chairing the marketing committee, with the head and governors as members.

* Heads of department presenting items on teaching and learning at governors' meetings.

* Implementation of workforce reform discussed at grassroots level and options then discussed at senior management level.

The way that heads deal with student misbehaviour is, it seems to me, extremely important to staff. Do they feel supported, do they feel that there is fairness and thoughtful consideration given to evidence, rather than snap decisions? Over five years, staff seem to think I have struck the right balance between compassion and consideration for individuals, often with difficult family circumstances, and the needs and rights of the rest of the community, including staff.

I believe that one of the primary functions of a headteacher is to serve the staff, being available to and for them. There is no conflict between meekness and leadership, between graciousness and being a stickler for high standards of performance.

I would argue that there is a close match between the personality and characteristics of a headteacher and the ethos and feeling in a school.

The notions of distributed leadership and the headteacher as servant came together for me in this, my last term at the school. The occasion was the last day that Year 11 were in school before they left for study leave.

There was a fire alarm as they were leaving their buffet during the afternoon, half an hour before the end of the school day. On the field, as students were coming back into the building, I was assaulted by a member of the year-group. It was very upsetting; indeed, I was shaken, but on reflection there were many positive results for the school and me.

Staff, without being directed by any individual, took control of the situation. I was advised by a "junior" colleague, "Sir, the staff will think no less of you if you go back into the building." I did so and the team brought the situation under control and sent for the police. Over the next few hours and days many teachers came to me to say how everyone supported me and kindly enquired how I was.

Their support enabled me to come into work the next day and return to business as usual. The other members of the senior management team convened a series of assemblies with each year-group, so they could reflect upon the values that we have always stood for in our community. Teacher governors called an extraordinary staff meeting, then wrote to me expressing the support of the whole staff. Governors would not even hear of the student being allowed to take GCSE exams in the school; parents telephoned and emailed to add their support, and education authority officers also were extremely helpful.

After five years of giving, it was time for me to learn to receive; and I believe that staff feel empowered and emboldened to work even more closely with the senior team since this distressing incident.

Mark Garbett is head of a secondary school in theNorth-west. The article "Head's tale turned on teamwork" appeared in The TES on May 13

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