Hero heads need courage to let others have a go

20th June 2008 at 01:00
Giving your staff the confidence to take risks is essential if you are serious about turning young lives around, but it's easier said than done, says Gerald Haigh
Giving your staff the confidence to take risks is essential if you are serious about turning young lives around, but it's easier said than done, says Gerald Haigh

I go to a lot of schools. It's a great privilege, and it keeps me in action long after I might well have elected to lie in the long grass. On one of my most recent visits, after I'd been impressed and moved yet again by the eagerness of the staff and young people to show me some of the things they were doing, I said to the head, "In the end it all stems from the leadership."

A little to my surprise, instead of making the self-deprecating remark that you might expect, she nodded and enthusiastically agreed. It didn't take long for me to realise that, whereas I'd intended to pay her a compliment, she took it to refer to a much wider notion of leadership. This included, for example, the Year 7 girl who decided it was time the school had a cross-country team, so she got one together, trained them and took them off to win the town trophy.

Real leadership has always been like that - a matter of continually growing new leaders, winding them up, then saying, "Off you go!" Take Sir Ernest Shackleton, the Antarctic explorer. Surely he's the archetypal heroic leader. And yet it was his deputy, Frank Wild, who in 1916 kept 21 men alive and optimistic for over four months on a barren, frozen beach on Elephant Island as they waited for "The Boss" to return and rescue them. (Wild neatly packed up his bed roll every morning and said, "The boss'll come today, lads.")

What it means for schools is that heads can't do it all on their own. You'd think that particular penny would have dropped by now. The "hero head" is really just wishful thinking - a Messianic dream on the part of governments that are looking for a quick fix.

I know a school that had a hero head for a while. This person came roaring in, soliciting approval like a colonel. ("At ease! Gather round. Johnson, isn't it? Weren't we together at Tobruk? How's the leg now?") For a while, things got better, and everyone stayed on board even when draconian "shake 'em up" top-down measures began to be implemented. After all, everyone said, something had to be done.

Eventually, though, cracks appeared. And, significantly, it was among the subject leaders - where loss of confidence really mattered. They were a highly skilled and experienced band of brothers and sisters who were thirsting for good leadership and bursting with ideas, but just weren't being listened to. Instead, they were expected to do the listening - to interminable lectures not only by their head, but by various visiting speakers and consultants who were wheeled in to tell them what they had been doing wrong.

In the end, it fell apart. There was no lasting improvement, and the head left (for what kind of post I leave you to guess). Another head came who began the long, methodical process of winning over teachers, parents and local businesses, releasing talent throughout the school and giving people the confidence to take risks without fear of failure.

Risk-taking's the secret - the courage to let people have a go, even if the brain's saying, "Ooh, I don't know". In fact, if I had to identify one key characteristic of schools that know how to change young people's lives, I'd go for the in-the-blood determination to cut through rules and conventions in order to find a pathway to success for every single child. Everything takes second place to the need to see everybody valued, every spark of potential fanned into life.

I've seen so many examples of how that works and the many different kinds of pride that are engendered. There's the boy who sold a 50-inch television during his work experience at Currys; the Btec performing arts students who took their show to Pontins and got a standing ovation; the Year 7s who decided to run a bingo session in the local care home (a child looked at me, wide eyed with the memory of it, and said, "This lady held my hand and thanked me for coming"); the difficult Year 10 girls who put on a fashion show for a breast cancer charity.

Each story - there are lots more, and I know you could all add your own - tells of a staff member given the confidence, freedom and support to say, "OK, go ahead. I'm here if you need me". It adds up to leadership that pulls off the very difficult trick of being definitely in charge, while at the same time setting people free to have ideas and take risks with them.

That, surely, is the way school leadership has to go. So much of what's happening demands it. The increasing emphasis on collaboration is going to place a premium on a leader's ability to listen and let go. Heads in a post-16 consortium will surely accept each other's students without being too worried about details of uniform or on which side of the corridor they're walking. A federation principal will discover how to lead the broader institution without micro-managing the heads of federated schools. The head of a "full-service" school, which integrates education, medical and social services, will know how to share the campus with organisations that are under someone else's direct control.

The accepted term, of course, is "distributed leadership" - which is much easier to say than to do. New heads intent on improvement often find, for example, that although they'd love to distribute their leadership, there aren't enough people capable of taking it on. It's a characteristic of many schools in trouble that subject and year heads aren't used to being given responsibility and independence.

"They'd not only been told what to do all the time, they'd been told exactly how to do it," is how one new head put it. She signed her staff up to the National College for School Leadership's Leading from the Middle programme.

So does this mean that formal training is the way to grow our leaders? All I can say is that I've met and interviewed lots of people who have done leadership and headship programmes and I've come to realise that those who speak of real, career-enhancing benefits are the ones who have got stuck in and made the programme do what they and their school needed. It's not enough to sit with folded arms, a glum expression and a thought bubble overhead that says, "Come on, sunshine, tell me something I don't know."

Yes, it's a different leadership world now, and I often think of the secondary modern head who interviewed me for a job in the 1960s. He said at one point, "You want to know how I run this school? It's with these." He pointed to his feet. "When they hear me coming down the corridor, they all know what to do."

Silly isn't it? But I know one thing. That man loved his kids. They were his life and they knew it. No, that wasn't enough, but it was very necessary, and - even though we have a national college now to tell us that we need more than shoe leather to run our schools - it most definitely still is.

Gerald Haigh's column, Five things to think about this week, returns next week. His book, Inspirational - and Cautionary - Tales for Would-be School Leaders, based on his writing for The TES, is published by Routledge.

Next week: How distributed leadership works in practice.

5 key leadership questions

Why can't we achieve best practice consistency of systems and approach in our 3,000-plus secondary schools? Wouldn't that make them less dependent on the personality of a single leader? Travelodge and Asda manage it, after all.

How often do we use the word "team" when really we're describing a collection of individuals who sometimes occupy the same space for a while?

Heads say to children, "Don't be afraid to make mistakes. You learn from them." Do they say the same thing to teachers?

Do heads issue job descriptions, or do they make everyone, at every level, feel part of a mission to improve the life chances of children?

Do heads have a tendency to think that the way to put things right is to do more of what hasn't worked up to now?

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