How to be a class act as a head

22nd May 2009 at 01:00

Who are the most important people in your school? The children, right? Wrong. The most important people are the staff. If they're not motivated and happy, then the children certainly won't be. And the quality of the senior management is central to that.

Worryingly, we seem to have entered the era of what has been called the Stepford leader - the automaton senior manager who adheres strictly to policy and procedure, assuming that by sticking to the rules they won't get anything wrong.

There's also a view that leadership can be learned by "going on a course", albeit a very extended one. You enrol with the National College for School Leadership. Then you spend hours on the internet solving hypothetical problems.

You write essays and you spend time with other prospective leaders, discussing budget management, the curriculum, staffing issues. And you have plenty of lectures from consultants, some of whom won't have been near a classroom for years.

Well, I don't think this works.

When I got my headship, the NCSL didn't exist. Yes, I'd been a successful deputy, but I soon learned that successful headship was in a completely different league. People skills are paramount. In my early years, I got a lot of things wrong, and occasionally I still do.

As a new broom at my first staff meeting, I was challenged on almost everything I said by one staff member. It was dispiriting, and it would have been easy to pull rank.

Instead, I smiled and said: "Look, we hardly know each other. You'll have to give me a chance to prove myself."

In the event, the teacher proved to be a loyal, dedicated and indispensable member of staff; he was just wary of a new young head coming in and messing everything up. Had I not been cautious at that first meeting - and shown a little humility - we could have been at war from the start.

Although I'd been appointed to a primary school, I had little knowledge of infants. All my experience had been with juniors, so I was grateful for the support I received from an experienced teacher in the infant department.

When she went into hospital for a minor operation, I decided to surprise her by ordering some modern storage furniture for her classroom. She was horrified when she came back to school, demanding to know who'd moved her beautiful old oak cupboards and table.

I ate humble pie and she forgave me, but it made me realise how important it is to understand the personalities on your staff. Barging in and making lots of ill-considered changes to the running of the school is a quick route to raising universal resentment.

Anybody can pull rank and coerce, but that isn't leadership. Respect and trust must be earned; you have to prove that you can inspire your team of intelligent, professional people, and it is right that you should need to.

Experience is the route to achieving this, not "fast tracking" into leadership, or assuming that managing people means ordering them about.

Headship is a vital job. Get it wrong and you make people's lives a misery. I believe aspiring heads should have to spend at least two terms in a school with an inspirational, experienced head.

There is a huge amount to learn and the best way to do it is to shadow an expert. After all, a student on teaching practice with an outstanding teacher will learn more in eight weeks than she would in two years of college lectures.

And then, perhaps, we'd get quality leaders without needing a hugely expensive National College for School Leadership ...

Mike Kent is headteacher of Comber Grove Primary in Camberwell, south London.


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