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Study casts doubt on the value of 'superheads'

DRAFTING in "superheads" to take over failing schools is not the way to ensure long-term improvement, new research suggestss.

It says that team-building and people-centred leadership strategies are the key to ensuring schools continue to flourish.

Research for the National College for School Leadership examined the leadership styles of 10 heads of improving schools in challenging circumstances. The schools typically had less than 25 per cent of pupils achieving five good GCSEs, or more than 35 per cent entitled to free school meals.

All admitted they had adopted "autocratic" leadership approaches at critical times. But they also felt this style was the least likely to lead to sustained school improvement.

Instead, they sought to encourage staff to take the lead, involving them in decision-making, sharing information, investing in training, and trusting people to deliver.

The "superhead" initiative hit a low point in March 2000, when three high-profile leaders quit at Fresh Start schools within five days of each other. Despite this, the new education Bill allows groups of schools to cluster under one head.

The research was carried out by Alma Harris, professor of school leadership at Warwick University, who conceded that the small sample size limited how far the results could be generalised.

But she notes: "Even if a superhead is successful, what happens when they leave? The school reverts back to previous practice.

"These (successful) heads have engaged in a form of leadership which is not about heroic, singular, top-down styles. They recognise that the only way to sustain improvement over time is to invest heavily in the leadership capacity of the staff they work with."

Contact Warwick University on 024 7652 3708 for research details.

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