Put your heads together

Collaboration among school leaders is a lot more fun than Ofsted, writes Phil Revell

Who leads the leader? And to whom should headteachers turn when they have doubts about their strategy? Who is best placed to give a dispassionate judgment about a head's strengths and weaknesses?

"They saw something in my school that I had not seen," says Brian McNulty, headteacher of St Matthew's RC high school in Manchester. "The process made me crystallise my thinking. I've streamlined my structure and, when I put it to my staff, I didn't get a single word of dissent - it was as though they had been waiting for me to do it."

Mr McNulty is not referring to Ofsted, which he sees as hugely disruptive. Nor is he singing the praises of LEA advisers or outside consultants. The three people who were able to spot the need for changes in his management structure were other local heads.

"My initial view was trepidation," he says. "This was a group of heads coming in to look at my work - three professionals coming into my school and taking it apart. But by the time the process was complete all my worries had gone. I've been able to say to colleagues, 'This process is very, very useful'."

Learning Leaders is a Department for Education and Skills initiative being piloted by schools in Manchester's Excellence in Cities programme. It comes direct from Education Secretary Estelle Morris's office, although the involvement of one Jean Else in the scheme suggests that someone may have whispered the suggestion in Ms Morris's ear at an earlier stage. Jean Else is head of Ms Morris's alma mater, Whalley Range, a 1,600-pupil girls' high school on the tough southern outskirts of Manchester. Under Ms Else's leadership Whalley Range has been transformed and is setting the pace with fresh initiatives in the city.

The school is one of the new business and enterprise colleges announced in July. Sponsored by the Co-operative Insurance Society, Whalley Range plans a programme of citizenship and business education that will involve every girl in the school for seven days a year. A health shop will be open to pupils and local people, as will a "business and enterprise" suite in a new sports complex.

A "unique initiative" is how Ms Else describes Learning Leaders. "It's a peer evaluation scheme," she adds. Under the programme, a group of heads go into a school to look at anything that might link to leadership in any context. There are no classroom observations, but the pupils and key members of staff are interviewed. The aim is to produce a "warts and all" picture of the school. "I was a visiting head and it was a real privilege to go into someone else's school," says Ms Else. "The important thing is that we all learn."

The visiting heads produce a report and - unlike Ofsted - there's a commitment to stick around and assist the host school if there are issues to be addressed.

At North Manchester girls' high school, Marion Catterall had been in post for less than a year when the Learning Leaders initiative was announced. "I'm still learning about my establishment," she says. "I felt this could shape my thinking and my future direction and perhaps identify things I hadn't thought of."

One issue at North Manchester high was "environment", a concern shared by Whalley Range. "I've been able to offer a member of my senior team to Marion Catterall's school to do a full analysis," says Jean Else. The pilot scheme ran over the summer term, with three Manchester schools being visited.

Des Coffey is the partnership co-ordinator for Manchester's Excellence in Cities programme. An ex-head with 37 years' experience in Manchester schools, he argues that collaborative programmes such as Excellence in Cities have made real partnerships possible again after years of competition and distrust.

"In the past, this would have floundered because of cut-throat competition," he says. "The real strength is that these are serving headteachers. This brings people together who have had shared experience."

The DfES funded the first phase of the project, but Manchester is keen to see the scheme spread; other Excellence in Cities areas are already showing an interest.

The headteacher visits take two days, with additional time needed for preparation and dialogue regarding the suggested action plan. "Even with my busy schedule, it has been some of the most useful Inset I've spent," says Ms Else. "How many of us actually get to see the workings of another school?"

At St Matthew's, Brian McNulty believes "the outcome justified the discomfort", arguing that the initiative could offer a route towards professional self-evaluation. "I still see a need for inspection or audit," he says. "But it would be far more efficient and less disruptive to base it on a system like this. This is the way we need to move."

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