A good listener;Head's tales;Management amp; Finance;Update

12th November 1999 at 00:00
Headteacher Carolyn Clarke broke her school's 'holy huddle' of senior managers to involve staff in decision making. Now action, not whingeing is the norm, says Gerald Haigh.

Good leadership has little to do these days with the brandishing of big sticks. Neither, perhaps surprisingly, does it have a lot to do with the clearing out of dead wood (because if the job is properly done, a proportion of the dead wood will come back to life, and the rest will fall over of its own accord). What it does mean, above all, is identifying and valuing, then releasing and enhancing, the strengths of your people.

Think about this for a moment, and it becomes clear that this kind of leadership implies that the leader spends a lot of time listening - to staff, parents, children, people in the community - which is the point forcefully made by Carolyn Clarke, head of Bartley Junior School in Hampshire, on the edge of Southampton:

"We've tried to develop a culture of listening to people, helping them to find their own solutions to problems." Mrs Clarke started teaching at Henry Bellairs C of E middle school in Warwickshire in 1976 where, coincidentally, I was the headteacher.

She moved south in 1983, becoming deputy head of Heathfield Junior in Southampton in 1988. In 1992, she became head of Bartley Junior appointed by governors who were looking for a change. When she arrived she found a school where, as she puts it, "The mental health was poor - there was a culture of blaming others." The organisation had been hierarchical and tight, inhibiting innovation and causing staff to break up into groups. The results were seen not only in classroom work - Mrs Clarke found a Year 3 and a Year 6 Group doing the same maths lesson - but, importantly, in the physical state of the building which was not being efficiently cleaned and cared for.

There was, she says, "an emphasis on control - teachers as 'winners'". Now, she says, when new staff are interviewed, "We look carefully at how people answer questions - we don't want people who are winning at the expense of children." She set out, therefore, to bring staff into discussion and policy making. She wanted to break down what she calls the "holy huddle" of the senior management team that hands its decisions down.

It was not an easy process, and an important preparatory step was to make the school look better, with paint, curtains, carpets and the straightforward clearing out of junk. Some staff, though, were unsure about the "opening up" agenda. There was a balance to be kept between making teachers feel involved on the one hand and burdened with unwanted responsibilities on the other. Mrs Clarke says, "I know teachers can become overloaded, but my approach is not of the head or the deputy off-loading work - it's getting everybody on board working together. If you feel fully involved in your work, in a place that respects you, then your self esteem is high." She clearly did win through - the last inspection (late 1997) shows a well led school with good teaching, well behaved pupils and above average results. Even a brief visit reveals a school with a happy atmosphere, a cheerful staff and purposeful classrooms - a long way on from the place she inherited, which had mould growing on the walls.

A great deal of Mrs Clarke's success is due not so much to her application of systems and methods, but because she is evidently good with people. This is partly down to her personality, but she applies also a number of counselling techniques, some of which she learnt on a Masters' course at Southampton University.

Claiming to be "a good listener" is one thing. Knowing the techniques of good listening is something else. Many teachers will be familiar with the head who, though intending to listen to a problem, is distracted by other pressing tasks, and becomes intent on drawing the talk to a close, or chips in with his or her own experiences.

Accordingly, Mrs Clarke and her staff have devised a list of the 16 characteristics of good listening, which include such points as - eye contact, empathetic body language, summarising what is being said, not taking over with personal experiences.

To the busy classroom teacher, the knowledge that the head is giving serious, undivided attention, is morale boosting in itself, aside from any actions that stem from the talk.

Another approach she used involved working out how to supervise children around the school's extensive site. In rough summary, this works by having one person as the "problem- holder", then embarking on a general brainstorming of ideas from which the problem-holder selects the best. That person then distills these into workable solutions and shares them with the group. It is a way, says Mrs Clarke, of moving staff beyond what she calls "whingeing Pom mode" to finding solutions.

Similar techniques are used with the children. "Solution-focused brief therapy", for example, encourages children to find ways forward from problems without picking over the past. Part of this involves "miracle questions": "You wake up one morning and there has been a miracle. What is the first thing that lets you know the miracle has happened?" One child responded: "My teacher smiles and says 'Good morning' to me."

Carolyn Clarke calls this "a culture of counselling". But this is not merely "touchy-feely stuff". Her higher degree study, and continuing work with the university, provides her with a sound academic foundation, and at the practical level, the school has rigorous procedures for recording and revisiting the results of interviews with children.

Improved academic standards, though, coming from better teaching, enthusiastic staff and children who are listened to provide the best evidence.

As a postscript, it is worth quoting the views of Jonathan Howard, English co-ordinator at the school who recently took time off with a serious illness. First he spoke admiringly of Carolyn Clarke's leadership qualities, and her intuitive approach to teachers in the classroom. Then he gave an insight into the personal quality which undoubtedly accounts in great measure for her success.

"When I was ill," he says, "She dropped everything. What was facing me became her priority."

* Carolyn Clarke is one of 17 heads who describe their experiences in a new book, 'Living Headship: Voices, Value, Vision', for the British Educational Management and Administration Society, published by Paul Chapman, pound;49.50 (hb) pound;18.99 (pb)

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