For best results, let the secretary do it

8th August 2008 at 01:00

Get rid of books and files in your office, ditch the computer and let your secretary take over, headteachers have been told. It is the secret to shaving dozens of hours off a working week - and running a school more effectively.

The radical message came from Malachi Pancoast, an American management guru, at an inter- national conference organised by the Scottish Government. He urged heads to be "superfluous" and "do nothing". At times, his message was met with gasps of disbelief.

He said heads could free themselves from paperwork, telephone calls and meetings by following three rules, and that they should take advantage of the freed-up time to stand over teachers in classrooms.

Mr Pancoast, president of management consultants The Breakthrough Coach, said education was "the only industry where the higher you go, the harder the work".

The first change was to clear the office. "There should be no paper, no bookshelves, no files, no filing cabinet, no desks, no computer," he told the International Summer School on School Leadership in Edinburgh last week. Neither should there be a telephone, plants, or any reminders of home. Instead, the office should have the "consciousness of a conference room" and be a place where he or she could concentrate on a few crucial tasks.

Mr Pancoast divided staff into two roles: managers, including headteachers, whose job was to get things done through other people, and technicians, specialists or experts, such as teachers and secretaries, who did one thing well.

He told delegates that "secretary" was historically a more important description than today's utilitarian connotation; some of the most important jobs included secretary-general of the United Nations and the US Secretary of State.

The second rule was that secretaries should handle all post and paperwork, and know more about what was going on in the school than anyone else. The third was the head should hold a daily 20-minute meeting with the secretary, who would review paperwork and recommend action.

These rules were designed to let a head wander the school and keep abreast of what was going on. He likened a head stuck in an office to Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson sitting in his office while his team played a match.

He said such visits would keep teaching standards high. Awareness of their presence would have an impact on teachers in the same way people modified their behaviour around policemen, he said, adding that it would take a year to implement his system and three years to master it.

Sheila Smith, a member of the national CPD team, said Mr Pancoast's presentation had "polarised" delegates. Some believed his aims achievable, but others did not think the roles performed by a head could be unpicked so easily.

Constant watch

Alan Williamson, head of Hawick High in the Borders, has been putting Malachai Pancoast's ideas into practice since he was part of a delegation of Scottish heads who heard him speak at Harvard University in Massachusetts in 2006.

Mr Williamson goes into classrooms as much as possible.

"The danger is that, if you don't do this, you sit in an ivory tower and start looking at strategic thinking from your office rather than the chalkface," he says.

He is happy with the results, albeit uncomfortable with the idea of a head as a "policeman" standing over a teacher's shoulder. He prefers to see this time as a starting point for conversations with teachers and reflection on practice.

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