Heads can't become leaders on their own

11th March 2011 at 00:00

The role of headteacher has never been easy. It has always called for the patience of Job, the wisdom of Solomon and a high degree of organisational flair.

However, in the past few years, the job has become more complex and challenging than ever before - so much so that most now taking on the role are underprepared.

When I was appointed to my first headship of a medium-size South Wales comprehensive 17 years ago, the budget over which I had direct control was #163;1.5 million. By the time I retired it had mushroomed to #163;4.5 million, as more responsibility was devolved to school level. This gave us more financial accountability than any other heads in Europe.

But that is only part of the challenge. Today's head must be a leader in every sense of the word. Upon their shoulders rests the burden of raising pupil attainment year on year, irrespective of the young people's background. That expectation is right and proper, but it also calls for a broad set of skills - including social work skills - that were not necessarily required years ago.

In addition to traditional school-management skills, today's heads must be outward-facing and able to work with neighbouring schools, FE colleges and other partners in leading networks to deliver Wales's 14-19 curriculum.

One of the greatest challenges is that of "system leadership" - working for improvement in your school, across the community and the whole education system.

The General Teaching Council for Wales' (GTCW) recent consultation involving hundreds of heads across Wales found that most welcome the opportunity to get involved strategically in developing education across their areas. However, they were clear that far more leadership development support is needed if they are to cope with these new demands.

While the current cohort of heads may be willing to embrace new agendas, when they retire their potential successors may be deterred by the absence of proper preparation.

As of last year, 33 per cent of heads in Wales were aged over 55 and therefore due to retire in the next decade. There is a danger that many of their most suitable potential successors may regard the job as "simply not worth the trouble".

The paper Leadership, Including Headship, which the GTCW has adopted and forwarded for Assembly government consideration, is not just about preparing people for headship. As its name implies, it is about leadership at every level in teaching because leadership doesn't just happen when one becomes a head. It must develop throughout one's career.

Teaching is all about leadership. At the least, teachers are leaders of learning, able to direct and motivate pupils. These days, they must also to be able to lead support staff.

The problem is that, beyond qualified teacher status, there is a major vacuum in skills development so the opportunity to nurture these leadership skills is often missing. The net result is that, unless one is lucky enough to teach in a school or area where professional development is actively promoted, one can arrive at middle and senior leader level ill-equipped.

The chartered teacher programme, which the GTCW has designed and piloted, could definitely help to sharpen those leadership skills and ensure there is a healthy pool of willing candidates to fill every headteacher vacancy. But, more than that, there must be a specific, coherent and comprehensive programme of preparation for aspiring heads before they enter the post.

Heads across Wales are adamant we should retain mandatory standards for headship and that a National Professional Qualification for Headship must stay. But it must not be an assessment tool only. Alongside, there must be rigorous skill building that includes coaching and mentoring, regular involvement in professional learning networks and secondments to situations where they can get live experience of being in the hot seat. "Picking it up as you go along" isn't good enough for a job that is as demanding as that faced by the chief executive of a large company.

Many exciting things are happening in Wales' education system today. For these to work, we need high-performing heads who can lead from the front.

The National College for Leadership of Schools and Children's Services summed it up well in its 2006 report Seven Strong Claims About Successful School Leadership: "There is not a single documented case of a school successfully turning around its pupil achievement trajectory in the absence of talented leadership."

Leadership must start on entry to the profession and be manifested at every level so that the system naturally produces heads who can make a difference to young people.

Elwyn Davies is a former secondary head and current deputy chair of the GTCW.

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