A leadership consortium in Shropshire aims to improve efficiency in all areas of school management and administration. It might also improve the quality of home life for senior teachers, writes Phil Revell
Anthony Snowden is head of science at the Marches school and technology college in Shropshire. He is responsible for the science curriculum and runs a team of 14 teachers and four technicians. In business terms, he's a middle manager, a vital member of the leadership team. But he's also a teacher who has just two hours per week outside the classroom for all his admin and management work.
"I have just spent my Sunday afternoon transferring 249 sets of exam entry data to computer, all of which have to be double-checked," he says. "People cope in different ways. Some skimp marking, some work even longer hours. I became an absentee parent."
This kind of workload story is all too familiar, but it also gives an insight into the problems of developing quality leadership skills in Britain's schools. In most organisations, leadership is the central role of a manager; in schools, it's something that has to be fitted in around the edges of the teaching role.
Dealing with this conundrum is a priority for government. Ministers hope that the new leadership incentive grants will make a difference to people like Mr Snowden. He can see light at the end of the tunnel: his school plans to spend some of the money on more support staff.
Shropshire may seem an unlikely place for a grant designed to tackle disadvantage. It's about as far away from the problems of the inner-city as you can get, but there are other issues.
Oswestry in the north of the county could be a template for rural deprivation. The picturesque scenery masks poor and scattered services, low wages and a lack of understanding about the value of quality education.
"It's long been recognised that there were serious issues around poverty and lack of aspiration," says Graham Davies, headteacher at the Marches. It has already been working in partnership with Rhyn Park and Lakelands schools through an education action zone. These three plus a fourth school, The Grange in Shrewsbury, 15 miles away, now collaborate in a leadership incentive grant group.
John Stokes, headteacher of the Grange, squeezed his school into the consortium at the last moment. Incentive grant money is open to schools in challenging circumstances: those in the inner-city or an action zone, or those with exam grades below the Government's dividing line of 30 per cent top-grade GCSEs.
The Grange serves Shrewsbury's northern boundary, an area of factories, retail outlets and featureless council housing. It's an improving school which achieved 47 per cent A*-C GCSEs last year. Mr Stokes has just distributed an achievement award. But two years ago the results were less impressive, at 29.5 per cent. The Grange qualified for the leadership grant - just.
"I didn't think we would get the money," said Mr Stokes. "Which would have been a pity, as this school has missed out on all the other agendas."
The four schools worked to a tight schedule in submitting their bid, which runs to four pages of tightly packed detail. Chris Warn, Shropshire's senior adviser who helped them prepare the bid, thinks the incentive grants could effect real change in the four schools.
"They came up with a whole range of ideas," he says. "There is a possibility of overcoming the old culture of the secondary school as an isolated unit, competing with its neighbours."
The four have put pound;175,000 into a common pot to fund joint projects: joint subject meetings, visits to successful schools outside the group and a focus on training and leadership development. But first they have to release some time.
"Helping people to take advantage of best practice requires re-training and devolution of roles to others," says Mr Warn. So a significant chunk of the grant monies will anticipate the workload reforms by giving teachers more support staff.
"We'll be appointing teaching assistants, clerical staff and a business manager," says Graham Davies, head of The Marches.
Anthony Snowden believes he supports his science team well. "That is probably the single biggest chunk of my management time. I think our department is probably ahead of the game in that we already invest in each other's development and I really hope the LIG initiative allows this to spread.
"I don't particularly want to go down the route of becoming an advanced skills teacher, but I would like more time to support staff across the school."
He is also hoping to use some of the freed time to guide and support his colleagues through developments such as online learning, individual target setting, and the use of advanced technology skills. Mr Snowden's other priority would be his own professional development. His in-service budget for his own needs goes towards cover for area heads of department meetings.
Chris Warn thinks the planned agenda and costed outcomes are both challenging and realistic. The Grange aims to see its GCSE score continue to rise to 60 per cent. The Marches is focusing its goals on a few departments.
Whitehall would approve of that, but the rest of the plan - although enthusiastically received in London - isn't quite what ministers apparently had in mind. Government guidance on the grant called for termly reports on how many schools have been closed and how many senior staff forced out as a result of the grant. The grant was sold to the popular press as a means of weeding out poor leaders. "We weren't very attracted by that vision," says Mr Warn. "Shropshire has neither the schools nor the heads to spare. When you have a toothache, extraction is not always the best solution."
Instead, the focus has been on partnership and collaboration. And John Stokes highlights one of the outcomes he thinks all four heads would like to see.
"I'm hoping to see some of my heads of department moving on to other schools because of the opportunities that this will give them," he says.
"No headteacher wants to lose good staff, but equally no school can afford not to develop its teachers. If this helps us do that, it will be money well spent."