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Significant game players in a whole galaxy of spheres;Opinion

Head who thought writing was obsolete" was the Daily Mail headline in 1975 when the story about William Tyndale junior school first broke. William Tyndale was portrayed as a school out of control, where teachers had become too powerful, governors had acted irresponsibly, the local authority had failed in its responsibilities, and where the headteacher had embraced ideology rather than pedagogy.

Tyndale hit the headlines again in 1976, just as the new Prime Minister, James Callaghan, was preparing a major speech on education - his Ruskin College speech. The furore reinforced his view that teacher domination of schools and the curriculum needed to be challenged.

Once again, schools are back in the spotlight. Their task is to "right" a range of ills. Heads have been brought centre-stage and expectations about what they can achieve are high. Leadership is seen increasingly as a key constituent in the "effective" school.

The head of today is expected to be a significant player in a whole galaxy of sometimes separate, sometimes interlocking spheres: governing bodies, the local authority, central government, parents, teacher unions, and of course, teachers and students.

Parents, policy-makers, researchers and pupils all agree that headteachers make a difference. But what kinds of headteachers do we want, and how should they go about the job?

The first thing to be said is that there is no single package for school leadership, no one model to be learned and applied in unrefined forms for all schools in all contexts, no all-purpose recipe, although there are some common ingredients. Schools are constantly changing, and heads have to respond to the school's complex, and frequently troublesome inner life. Teachers leave, pupils misbehave, fire, floods or pestilence can strike any day.

Schools are intensely political organisations and heads inevitably find themselves juggling competing expectations and managing conflict in its many forms. There are multiple interests and demands, contested notions about priorities, constantly changing external demands. Headteachers hold the ring - and they need political nous to do that.

To some extent, heads have always had to try to do this by seeking alliances, deciding on courses of action, the fate of individuals and drawing on their own beliefs and judgments to make decisions about the use of resources. What has changed in the UK is the scale and the complexity of the task; the second thing which needs to be said is that headteachers need to fine-tune their political skills.

There is a curiously British aversion to talking about political skills. Their development is seen as synonymous with gamesmanship. But headteachers are central players in the political and social life of the school. They need to be able to read the situation - to recognise patterns, draw on past experience and to note the unique elements of an event. They need to be able to act skilfully and with integrity, and avoid the temptations of "games playing".

A politically inept head who has no understanding of power, cannot read the situation fluently and has little idea about how to act skilfully and with integrity can damage a school. Things go badly adrift with the governing body, key changes get sabotaged by recalcitrant teachers. The mantle of wilful innocence feigned by those who choose to ignore the politics can jeopardise important educational goals.

Equally, of course, the games-player who understands the politics but abuses that knowledge can damage the school in a different way. Headteachers need to be wise political leaders but they also need to be resourceful professional leaders.

The headteacher's credibility as a professional leader largely derives from her or his ability to create an open climate - a participative decision-making culture in which pupil interests are placed at the centre and in which expectations for staff and pupils are high.

In this sort of climate, there is a spirit of enquiry and challenge, and discussions about pedagogy and curriculum are the norm. Mentoring, co-teaching, class-room observation and feedback by peers take place on a regular basis.

But it's not just what headteachers do but how they do it that matters. School-teachers in Canada rated school principals as effective if they worked hard and had lots of energy, were genuine in their beliefs, exemplified "openness" and had good people skills and, most importantly, showed evidence of learning by growing and changing themselves.

The Flemish ministry of education describes the successful headteacher as one who "radiates enthusiasm", "has a sense of humour" and "can admit being wrong". Children whom I interviewed think that a good head is someone who "is able to make children, adults and the community feel confident about the things they do in schools. He or she provides a good example in their behaviour - by not smoking or drinking in school".

The final thing to be said about school leadership is that good leadership is shared. If you are headteacher, or aspiring head, don't be overwhelmed by all the challenges and expectations. It is simply not possible, and may not even be desirable, for one individual to undertake every leadership task within a school.

Kathryn Riley is director of the Centre for Educational Management, the Roehampton Institute. Her latest book, Whose School is it Anyway?, has just been published by Falmer Press.

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