Follow my leader

21st February 1997 at 00:00
Are too many heads 'weak and ineffectual'? Gerald Haigh looks at what makes a good one. We all know some heads are ineffective. There is Jack, who is ill but will not give in, and is being carried by the senior team; Jill, whose performance in many schools would be adequate, but who has ended up in an establishment dominated by a small group of obstructive colleagues with a direct line to the governors. And of course, there is Jim, all soundbites and no depth, who sneaked up the career ladder because he came over well in interview, and is now making a thousand children pay the price.

All the same, OFSTED's figures on poor leadership are startling - Chief Inspector Chris Woodhead's report says leadership is "weak or ineffectual" in one in ten secondaries and "weak and fails to give a clear educational direction" in one primary out of seven. Whether that is right or not, however, the management principle of continuous improvement aims to drive down any failure rate, whatever the starting point. To do this, governors want to know how to recognise good leadership and heads need to know if their own style will be judged wanting. And both groups want to know how to do better.

None of OFSTED's leadership and management criteria seem controversial (see below). Few heads, though, have been touring the bike sheds and the toilets with these principles clearly in mind, so perhaps there is a need for some discussion of what they imply.

It would be a mistake, for example, to assume that OFSTED, by using the phrases "strong leadership" and "clear educational direction" wants a head to assume an authoritarian stance. Nothing in OFSTED's reports on schools supports such a view. Leadership comes in many forms, and a style which quietly recognises, enhances and uses the qualities of members of staff, providing freedom within an agreed philosophical framework, is seen as being at least as effective as more assertive methods.

Too much assertiveness, in fact, causes staff to be over-cautious. One of the "14 points", which summarise the philosophy of management guru W. Edwards Deming says: "Drive out fear, so that everyone may work effectively for the organisation."

Good schools highlighted by OFSTED, and featured in The TES bear this out. They are not led by bullies - the key words are trust and empowerment. Jim Bleakley, head of Heywood Community High School, Rochdale, Lancashire, was highly praised personally by Mr Woodhead. He says to staff: "Act now and ask for forgiveness later."

Bob Salisbury, head of the dramatically improved Garibaldi School in Nottingham, talks of a "bobbing corks" model, in which individuals are free to rise to the surface and make their way unimpeded. "I want a risk-taking culture in which inertia is the only crime," he says.

Some years ago, a governor who is a senior business manager told me he admired everything about headteachers except their weakness when it came to "bringing their people on". Just possibly, therefore, when heads and governors contemplate Mr Woodhead's comments on weak leadership, they might resist the temption to ask: "How much stronger can I be?" and replace it with "How much stronger can I help our people to be?" Aside from leadership itself, the aspect of management which probably worries heads most is monitoring of classroom teaching. The assumption - especially in primary schools - is that the head will monitor teaching personally. And even in secondary schools, most heads will feel they should visit some classrooms. The classroom, after all, is where any improvement in learning will take place, and it is the classroom teacher who will make it happen.

Geoff Southworth of Cambridge University's Institute of Education, discussed this in the journal School Organisation last autumn. Until now, he says, the emphasis in primary schools (and the argument surely holds good at secondary level) has been on curriculum rather than peda-gogy. He says: "In some respects, debates about the curriculum have been a substitute for professional discussions on teaching."

He goes on to remind us, though, that the emphasis is changing - that inspectors now have to award grades for teaching ability. Assessment requirements, and the notion of "value added" are focussing attention on learning outcomes. The result is "growing awareness... that monitoring pupils' learning and the quality of teaching are important elements in seeking improvements in classrooms and the school".

The challenge for heads and other senior staff, though, is to find a way of carrying out this monitoring of pedagogy. One of the most common cries from experienced heads, after all, is that they are simply not up to speed with the demands of post-national curriculum classroom work. It was Geoff Southworth, too, who, in Talking Heads: Voices of Experience (University of Cambridge Institute of Education) found a head who confessed: "I feel disenfranchised because I don't know the curriculum to the extent that (classroom teachers) have toI I'm not in control as much as I could be had I taught the national curriculum."

To what extent is this head - and there are many primary and secondary senior teachers who feel the same way - fully equipped for the confident and expert monitoring of classroom work?

The careers of most senior teachers have included nothing that has equipped them to observe, analyse and constructively criticise at a serious professional level the classroom work of colleagues. And if we take that a step further, and suggest that the monitoring should not just be of teaching as a performance, but should largely be done on the basis of what the children are learning, the challenge is that much greater. Until now, in-service training for senior teachers has largely ignored their responsibilities for monitoring.

Perhaps that will change. The emerging National Professional Qualification for Headship certainly seems to be taking monitoring seriously. One of the recently announced assessment objectives, for example, says candidates should show "the appropriate skills, knowledge and understanding to secure and sustain effective teaching and learning throughout the school, monitor and evaluate the quality of teaching and standards of pupils' achievements and set targets for improvement".

The assumption among heads and teachers is that monitoring should be carried out in a constructive and developmental fashion - the principle of "driving out fear" means using monitoring as a threat would be directly counter-productive. Most teachers find it difficult to make judgments about their own work, and they respond quickly and with understanding when someone tells them where the gaps are.

Finally, the biggest complaint of heads is that Mr Woodhead himself seems to be making no effort to drive out fear. Perhaps heads and governors should not fear OFSTED, but many do, and apprehension is enhanced when Mr Woodhead is seen to be seeking improvement by pointing to the consequences of failure.

Whether he is or should be in any sense a leader is, of course, arguable. There is no doubt, however, that many heads see him that way, and go on to judge that he seems to undervalue those principles of leadership which concern themselves with praise, encouragement and the need to build on success.

This is why a lecturer who recites Deming's 14 points to a group of heads is greeted with nods and smiles up to the one that says: "Cease dependence on mass inspection." At that point the smiles turn to cheers.

OFSTED's handbook requires inspectors to judge leadership and management of a school according to the extent that: Strong leadership provides clear educational direction for its work Teaching and curriculum development are monitored and supported The school has aims, values and policies which are reflected in all its work There is a positive ethos, reflecting the school's commitment to high achievement, an effective learning environment, good relationships and equality of opportunity for all pupils Statutory requirements are met The handbook also points out governors and staff in management positions must also share responsibility for good leadership.

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