Head's tale turns on teamwork

13th May 2005 at 01:00
But one discovers that some staff prefer more leadership and less responsibility

When I was taught about leadership and management styles, I enthusiastically absorbed the prevailing opinions and immersed myself in reading about them and discussing them with colleagues on courses. As I understood it, in most situations, school leaders will find a collegiate, relatively democratic (team) way of working is preferable to an autocratic, relatively dictatorial (one boss) way of doing things.

In my time as a middle manager, I experienced very little professional autonomy and felt all the more motivated, therefore, as a headteacher, to give my middle and senior managers a great deal of real responsibility and power, if appropriate.

I consider I was at the forefront of new ideas, with non-teachers on senior teams, an excellent SEN co-ordinator, who was not a qualified teacher, and a highly able bursar with deputy-head level authority. I saw myself as sincere and transparent and shared with my leadership team genuine control of both the day-to-day and the strategic direction of one of these schools.

I believe in theories of dispersed leadership and aim to be the sort of headteacher who eventually leaves a school able to function well without them -sowing the seeds of, and developing others as deputies and heads of the future.

I believe that a headteacher cannot know everything but should ensure that the right people (with the relevant knowledge and skills) are in the right places to do the job. I used the weapons of trust and genuine delegation. I wanted to empower and develop everyone. I was proud of all of them and saw them rise to challenges and exceed their own expectations.

So, in my last headship, I was again keen to put my beliefs into practice.

I was head of the school - let's call it Happyville - during a period in which the local authority repeatedly praised the improvements in teaching and children's results. Happyville's governors were conscientious and wholly supportive. The school led the LEA in two initiatives, one directly concerned with learning, the other with child protection.

I saw my role often as one of encouragement and support - the ideas came from members of the staff and I cleared the way. I felt great working with such mutually supportive colleagues and, when talking about these professionals and my feelings for them, I used the word "love" and meant it. I was extremely proud of the team's achievements but the best was yet to come. From my very first visit to Happyville it had been both the strong team ethos of the people I met, and my impression of the chair of governors, which attracted me to work there. The strength of that team feeling was the main characteristic of the school as identified in various audits. It was palpable.

When the time came for the renewal of the Investors in People Award, I was anxious for the staff team again again do well. The school achieved a wonderful report with no areas for improvement listed. The interval for the subsequent review was set at three years! (IIP is not awarded as a permanent prize - it has to be earned, normally every year or two). This was a source of great pride, not least because our IIP drive had been lead by a new member of the leadership team, an excellent teacher who was new to the school.

A final point I would make about the school is that colleagues are more physical in their relationships with each other than is usual. At the end of my successful interview for the headship, for example, I was warmly hugged. This dimension adds to the feeling of teamwork and general togetherness about the place.

So when a small delegation from the leadership team asked for a meeting in my office after school one Thursday, I was completely unprepared for what came next.

I was devastated as they told me how I was asking far too much of the individuals in the team, bad for the morale of the entire staff, not being enough of a leader and so on and so on. They produced a damning letter signed by the entire leadership team. The letter had grave references to unions, governors and senior LEA personnel. If I had not been sitting down I would have fallen over...

I have learned my lesson. I did not communicate my ideas frequently enough.

The school was working well but those individuals who felt a need for a leading individual did not have their need met. They wanted a figurehead and I was not there for them.

I had not repeated to them my belief that they were the experts in their areas and I was not to be expected to be an expert at their jobs. An education manager is not a teacher.

Nobody expects hospital managers to be able to do the work of doctors, so why do people in education expect headteachers to be expert at every sort of educational practice?

The author has been a headteacher for eight years.(Pat McDermott is away)

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