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Take me to your leader

Heads with a clear map of the future are likely to have the best results, reports Phil Revell

The most comprehensive study of leadership in education paints a mixed picture of life at the top in our schools. The study, carried out for the Department for Education and Skills by a team from London University's Institute of Education, highlights 10 schools where the leadership is "outstanding"; but in most schools the quality of leadership was "variable", and governors - central to government reform over nearly 20 years - had little effect or influence on leadership quality.

One of the outstanding leaders in the study was Victor Burgess, head of Elliott school in the London borough of Wandsworth. "The leader has to be able to put his or herself about in the school," he says. "The job isn't about being bound up in the office, it's about being out in the community."

Mr Burgess describes his leadership style as collegiate. "But the successful head deploys different styles in different circumstances. When tough decisions have to be made, the head has to lead from the front."

The study, Establishing the Current State of School Leadership in England, took more than a year to complete and looked at almost 2,000 heads, deputies and teachers. One hundred local education authorities contributed to the findings and 10 schools with successful Ofsted reports were presented as case studies. Headteachers in the sample had spent an average of 6.6 years in their current posts.

The researchers, led by the Institute of Education's Peter Earley, argue that effective school leaders share an ability to picture a clear vision of where they want their school to go, and have a clear map of how to get there.

"The best school leaders successfully articulate their personal, moral and educational values with total conviction," says the report. "They set high expectations for staff and pupils, successfully monitor performance, and motivate everyone to give of their best - projecting a high profile - and 'walking and talking' this role during frequent movement about the school."

The best school leaders are as good as any in commerce or industry. Unfortunately, excellence appears to be spread rather thinly, with local education authorities and training providers reporting variable quality across the UK. There was even more concern about the leadership qualities of education's middle managers. Fewer than one LEA in 10 considered these teachers good and effective leaders. "There's concern that middle managers have not been developing their management and leadership skills," says Peter Earley. "This is not a new finding. In the Eighties, I did some research with the National Foundation for Educational Research and found that middle managers did not regard staff development as a major concern."

But, as Mr Earley points out, in the modern school, these teachers are expected to lead their teams. "It all depends on the school's culture," he says. "If decisions have traditionally been taken by senior managers, people lower down the hierarchy are likely to say, 'This isn't my job, the head and the SMT are paid to do that,' so it's difficult to break into that, difficult to change that culture. It takes time."

Perhaps the most controversial of the report's findings is the damning criticism of the role of governors. Training providers told the researchers that many governing bodies were ineffective as "strategic leaders" and became over-involved in the detailed running of individual schools. Local authorities considered governors ineffective in helping to raise standards or improve schools: only about one in eight rated them as effective.

Heads were equally sceptical about the governors' role. Fewer than one in four said they should have a major role in the strategic leadership of schools; far fewer (only 13 per cent) judged that their governing body actually did so. Peter Early points out that, in contrast, the case-study schools' governing bodies were very effective. "This often hinged on one or two individual governors, especially the chair of the governing body."

The report gives the National College for School Leadership much to think about, and in at least one area, the college has already responded, with its programme for emergent leaders for the middle management group.

"The research was sensible," says Victor Burgess. "Especially the emphasis on the importance of middle managers."

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