Curtains for hero heads?

9th February 2007 at 00:00
Maybe the time has come to reconsider the role of the lone superleader

one striking feature of headship is the way all eyes are upon you. In his autobiography, Delusions of Grandeur, the late John Rae, former headmaster of Westminster school, says he would never speak to an audience with notes in his hand. He needed a lectern or table - because he didn't want his audience to see his hands shaking. This authoritative figure, who endlessly courted the media, reminds us of the symbolic and public nature of the head's role.

A PricewaterhouseCoopers survey recently looked at headship models in a bid to get us away from the "hero head". When asked about heads' essential ingredients, teachers said they should be "approachable and visible throughout the school". It's not just pupils and staff who expect to see us stalking corridors and leading assemblies: we're also under the gaze of parents, governors and other "stakeholders". That's what makes headship quite different from running a hospital or biscuit factory. You must set a strategic direction, be adept with budgets, personnel and paperwork, but then there's the distinctive mixture of visibility, credibility and authority that the role requires: you have to be able to control the lunch queue, quell a riotous class for a cover teacher and break up the giddy crowd at the school gate.

We must decide whether all this is sustainable or whether headship's recruitment crisis is linked to the way the job appears to be so all-consuming and unmanageable.

PWC suggests that someone from a business background could be chief executive of a school, leaving another team member to focus on standards and curriculum development. I am not convinced. Education is our core business, so it seems to me that a school should have an educationist at the helm.

Equally, if we are to do a good job in such complex times, something has to give. We may need to start shifting the expectations of parents, staff and governors and show that the old "hero head" model has had its day. We cannot go on absorbing an ever more diffuse agenda without losing focus on our overriding responsibility.

Contrary to the PWC report, perhaps we should be articulating more loudly why heads should be teachers, and remind everyone that schools are centrally concerned with values, relationships and learning. Let's not sacrifice these by assuming that the head has to take on all the other stuff. Instead, let's build teams of staff and governors who have the broad-based expertise to deal with all the outlying issues. Let's also redouble our efforts to focus our job on the vital and satisfying heart of headship: developing the next generation of pupils and teachers.

Geoff Barton is head of King Edward VI school in Bury St Edmunds


1 Have expert teams: Let's talk of leadership teams - not solo heads - that combine a complementary range of essential skills. Likewise governance - drag it away from enthusiastic amateurism and head-hunt a board of experts who can offer guidance in uncharted waters.

2 Develop leaders quicker: We underestimate new recruits. As they gain confidence as teachers, we need to develop their appetite and capability for leadership through in-house and national programmes. Most are hungry for opportunities.

3 Promote headship's good bits: Those on the outside guess it's all stress, conflict and accountability. Let's be more public about the perks of the job and wear our angst less publicly.

4 Discuss succession openly: Raise the changes in school leadership with governors. Get them to see that expectations about the head's role will have to change, and involve them in re-modelling it.

5 Think globally; act locally: Let's read with bemused interest the reports of distant consultants and pick out the bits that may be relevant to us.

But then, as with all initiatives, let's do what we think is right for our schools and pupils. The "single solution" for all schools is as deceptive as it is simplistic.

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