Editorial - When there are bandits in the staffroom, it's time for heads to get in touch with their inner Clint

18th February 2011 at 00:00

They breed them tough in Hackney. Sir Michael Wilshaw, head of the London borough's lauded Mossbourne Academy, has embraced Clint Eastwood as a model for school leadership. Headteachers, he argues, are lone rangers fighting the good fight in a world teeming with bad guys. And to fight it, they don't need wimpy management nostrums like shared leadership. They need ego. They should enjoy power.

Clint clearly has limited appeal as a role model for many of Sir Michael's peers (page 10). Team players will prefer The Magnificent Seven, those alive to the ambiguities of power will opt for Shane, and a handful of turncoats will go completely native and do a Little Big Man. Female heads in particular will not easily be convinced of the benefits of wearing highly visible stubble. But this shoot-out over headship obscures another issue. We're discussing sheriff when we should be talking posse. It's not all about leadership. Schools also have a followership problem.

Staff, as Clint would recognise, can be divided into three groups - the technical HR terms are supporters, corpses and bandits. The vast majority will, if treated correctly, belong to the first group. A few, despite every effort, will resist any attempt at resuscitation. RIP. But the most challenging lot by far are the bandits. They create mayhem because many are skilled but frustrated leaders. Some can be cured with promotion. Others have been so seduced by the dark side that some kind of OK Corral moment is inevitable.

Diehard banditos tend to deploy one of three resistance tactics. The first is to cast doubt on the competence of the head - even Clint would concede that it's hard to lead a charge if you look funny on a horse. The second is to question the quality of the pupils - challenge too great, resources too meagre, wrong type of children, difficult Injun country and so on. And the third - and by far the most effective - is to dress up self-interest as idealism. Mediocrity masquerades as principle. Hence "local management, democratically accountable" rather than "the last thing we want is hot-shot outsiders challenging duff staff".

Faced with these followership problems, heads may well be tempted to roll out their inner Clint and blast away. It may work. Circling the wagons and waiting for the cavalry certainly won't. But even Clint once partnered with Lee Marvin and sang rather than shot. In some situations, what's needed is a Doris Day rather than a John Wayne.

Unfortunately, at other times the only option is to walk tall and shoot straight. After all, the song's title is Annie Get Your Gun, not Annie Get In the Conciliation Service. But those who instinctively prefer the True Grit school of management to Oklahoma's harmonies should remember two things: it's dangerous out there; and never squat with your spurs on.

gerard.kelly@tsleducation.com.

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