Greater than a mere sum of skills

31st May 1996 at 01:00
John Bazalgette says that the quest for a national professional qualification for heads is based on a fundamental flaw.

The Department for Education and Employment is currently pressing forward, via the Teacher Training Agency, with creating a national professional qualification for headteachers. The documentation for consultation so far suggests that the urgency with which the idea is being pursued has resulted in a concept based on a flawed assumption. This flaw rests in the idea that suitability for headship can be developed by compiling a list of all the things on which one can make a quantitative assessment (based, of course, on a sophisticated analysis of the job) and then trainingassessing aspiring heads against that list. Such a process may keep the anxiety of those who have to make the appointment of a head at manageable levels. What it will not do is help people develop the capacity to take on the responsibility of being a headteacher, either in advance of appointment or after it.

The assumption that people can be prepared to take top-level posts by this "list" approach was made by business in the past, but it is now widely accepted that this crude mechanism does not work. Indeed, the TTA's present proposals could actually work in the opposite direction. What the list of competencies approach does is to draw in people who lack imagination and creativity, but who think mechanistically. while screening out those unconventional but charismatic men and women who can inspire children and adults. Such people are most urgently needed to bring inspiration to schools now. The challenge is to identify what produces that imaginative and creative capacity and how to develop it.

Working for many years with chief executives and heads of a wide range of world-class institutions, the evidence Grubb Institute staff have accumulated points to the centrality of knowing how to take up the leader's role. You may have all the knowledge, admirable personal qualities, and a superb track record in previous posts: but if you cannot think yourself in to the fundamental purpose of this particular system and its core technology, then all else is vain.

The fundamental purpose - sometimes called the primary task - can be defined by those key exchanges that take place between the institution and its context on which its survival depends. In profit-making enterprises the purpose has to do with the provision of goods and services that customers want to buy at a cost that produces a profit. In human service organisations it is meeting specific needs - for example, healing the sick, supporting the unemployed or protecting battered women - and finding and deploying the necessary resources. Within such generalisations, each institution has its own specific form and context. A business relates to its market: the more closely it can define its own niche the more specifically it can focus its product or services. A school may serve a particular catchment area where demographic, cultural and other factors determine its intake; a hospital is affected by its location in the facilities it offers.

Carrying out the institution's fundamental purpose calls for what might be called a core technology. This is the mix of professional skills and knowledge necessary to its work: the skills of diagnosing, operating, healing and nursing in a hospital; the skills of teaching, assessing, inspiring and challenging in a school.

A headship role involves three key factors. First, the ability to discern the boundary between the institution and its own context; sustaining and enhancing the way the two interact in line with the fundamental purpose Second, a grip on the school as a whole organism, integrating all its constituents into a coherent totality.

And third, sufficient skill in the core technology to understand on one's pulses what is going on - what is right and what is wrong - in the ways in which the fundamental purpose is carried out, and knowing in one's guts what to do to maintain or improve matters.

Without these three things the chief executive, general manager, principal or headteacher will not be able to deploy effectively any other knowledge or skills they may have. Indeed, if they cannot take the role to which they are appointed, they become a handicap to everyone else. In a school, a head who does not take up the role skews the way all others take their roles: teachers, pupils, parents, governors and other stake-holders.

One of the missing factors in the consultation documents is serious reference to pupils and their experience. For a school to carry out its fundamental purpose, children need to learn to take up the role of pupil or student. To think systemically about a school is not inhuman or oppressive: indeed, knowing how to be a pupil is the most freeing and supportive experience for any child. At the heart of good headship lies the ability to give pupils and their learning priority, to reconcile conflicting demands and to handle the positive and negative consequences of management decisions.

The effective head (rather than the efficient head) understands that the way the head operates within the framework of school relationships has implications for all other relations in the school.

Effective heads must be able to handle the fact that they are - willy-nilly - the conscious and unconscious focus of all relationships in the school. Anyone who denies this deceives themselves. The good head will so structure the school that, while the focus on them is not lost, they are not the only focus. The good head sees and underlines the centrality of the pupil role to the school's purpose, and ensures that children's experience in that role is evident to everyone.

The NPQ consultation documents set out six key principles. If the words "head" and "school" were replaced by "chief executive" and "company" nothing of any substance would be changed. But a school is not a factory, a bank, a farm, a government department, a hospital or a church. At the heart of a school is the dynamic interaction between teaching and learning. The latest National Commission report Success against the odds strongly suggests that the heads of schools that achieve excellent results are almost obsessed by the issues of teaching and learning. Yet the plans for the NPQ give no hint of their importance. The consultation documents bury teaching and learning in a welter of bland language as if these vital matters could not be spoken about with passion.

The proposals face serious practical problems for those aspiring to headship but not yet in post.

The list of tasks, talk of standards and desire to measure are all admirable taken in isolation, and relevant to a headteacher's work, but many only have full meaning when carried out by a headteacher. Such tasks do not mean the same thing if handed to someone else, when that person is not the focus of relationships (as discussed above) and does not carry the emotional burden of total responsibility that being the head entails.

The documentation has largely been written with secondary schools in mind. While some larger primary schools may have deputies with time to carry out some of the listed tasks, only a secondary school could offer a broad enough spectrum of tasks for anyone to score well when assessed against the whole range. Smaller junior schools, infant and special schools cannot create opportunities for much beyond classroom responsibilities.

There are two possible steps which might allow the proposals to be fully realised, bearing in mind the TTA's anxiety is to provide governors with an assurance system that will help them to make good appointments.

One is to enable headship candidates to demonstrate that they understand how to take up the role. Methods exist for doing that which could be suitably developed to meet perceived needs.

To overcome the lack of time available to those working in schools that cannot provide appropriate preparation, some form of staff college experience (which need not be residential, nor need it follow the "closed" military or civil service model, but be designed on open learning lines) could be devised.

But the reason why this flawed concept has been taken as far as it has lies in the failure to understand that being a head is not like leading any other kind of organisation. "Cut-and-paste" jobs done on other kinds of institutions using other professional skills for their core tasks will not do. Nor will approaches which are essentially "deficit" models - which is what lists of competencies are (though they give lots of work to consultants). Different frameworks need to be established which keep the key ideas of teachers teaching and pupils learning at their organic heart. With such an approach, picking up the three key headship considerations outlined above, something of value could result from the TTA's work. If not, one can sadly predict that managing a school will become no different from managing a meat- processing plant.

John Bazalgette is director of the Grubb Institute of Behavioural Studies

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