Are you addicted to leadership?

16th July 2010 at 01:00
Academic says high-flying teachers just can't get enough of turning special-measures schools around

School leadership acts like a drug, with successful headteachers addicted to the buzz that comes from rescuing a failing school, according to new research.

Birmingham headteacher Dr Sue Robinson interviewed 21 primary heads over three years, as part of her PhD research, to determine what motivated them to turn around failing schools.

She described these headteachers as falling into three overlapping categories: buccaneers, gurus and pioneers. Forty-three per cent of heads were pioneers, taking on new executive roles in individual schools or children's centres.

Ninety per cent were buccaneers: "educational change adventurers", Dr Robinson said. These heads were involved in leading and improving one or more schools.

And two-thirds of the interviewees were gurus: heads who also took on advisory roles with outside agencies, such as Ofsted, the British Council or the Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency.

One said: "I think, as a head, it is important that you do work outside your own school for your own professional development and your own sense of vision."

Others, however, were motivated purely by the desire to improve children's education.

"They believed that the principle of helping the children in other schools was one worth pursuing, even if it meant they had to work harder in order not to compromise their own school," Dr Robinson said.

One interviewee, for example, spoke of helping out another school, "because I feel so desperately sorry for the children there".

Another said: "I think it is worth it for the children and for the staff."

But the primary motivating factor among heads was a desire for new challenges and ever-more intense demands.

Several heads spoke of the excitement of taking on a school in special measures. Another said he actively sought out schools outside his comfort zone.

"Successful leadership acts like a drug on its dependents, who suffer from an addiction to it," Dr Robinson said.

As a result, the special-measures addicts need "to be constantly . moving from one adrenalin-filled experience to another, as they can't manage without the buzz it brings".

Dr Robinson's findings were presented at the British Educational Leadership, Management and Administration Society's annual conference, held in Reading this week.

She also revealed that successful headteachers tended to rewrite staffroom rules. Some, for example, reported dramatic changes to their governors only after these had been implemented.

The governors rarely complained, Dr Robinson said, "because they felt that not to comply might mean they would lose their headteacher, a prospect which left some of them scared".

Working in more than one school inevitably meant that the heads' own leadership roles were primarily strategic. As a result, many had created large senior-management teams.

One headteacher said: "I have a bursar, a site manager, an ICT manager . and an admin manager. What I really want are two more - I want a data manager . and . an inclusion manager."

Nonetheless, the heads were under no false-modest illusions as to their own roles in school. Most acknowledged that they were transformational leaders.

"There are staff who either can't or won't place as much trust in somebody else as they do in you," one interviewee said.

Another added: "Yes, I am the key person who keeps it together."

Three of a kind

Headteachers fall into three categories, according to Dr Sue Robinson. Most successful heads ultimately combine two or three of the roles outlined below, to create what Dr Robinson refers to as "a professional repertoire".

1. Pioneers

Heads with a new role within an individual school, such as leadership of a split-site school or extended school and children's centre.

2. Buccaneers

"Educational change adventurers", taking responsibility for the improvement of one or more schools. Often working at the margins of policy, taking charge of schools that have not yet been micromanaged from above.

3. Gurus

Heads who also take advisory roles within other agencies. These agencies include Ofsted, local authorities, the Department for Education, the British Council and the Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency.

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