Leadership - Bringing the world into your school

30th August 2013 at 01:00
Networking with the press and the local community is a vital part of the job

One of the first things I did when I became headteacher was to contact the local newspapers. This was not - as my detractors might assume - to issue a press release announcing my appointment, a kind of "ego has landed" moment.

It was instead to say hello, to mention that I was around and to pass on my phone number. I knew then what I know now: local newspapers thrive on local perspectives to national stories. If something big happens at the centre - a news report on school funding or student behaviour or curriculum change - then journalists will want a local angle, someone in the community who is prepared to make a comment. I promised to provide a quote on any education issue within an hour. I still do.

That approach, I suspect, is not in most manuals on educational leadership. Yet it is one of the most important things I do, even if, in the deepest thickets of weekends or on far-flung beaches, I am contacted for a comment on a story I have not heard about.

I do it not as a public relations exercise but because it locates the school - especially if, like ours, it is in a relatively rural area - in the mainstream ebb and flow of events. My view of school leadership is that if we are going to prepare our young people for the real world, then we need to connect actively with it ourselves. It is also key because, as communities fragment, the role of the neighbourhood school with a leader active in the local community feels to me increasingly important.

School leaders should not just be making contacts with the press. Networking should be done on a grander scale with every facet of the surrounding community. Hence, I always carry a small stash of business cards. In this way, whether at a dinner at the local further education college, a Rotary club awards event or an evening to celebrate local businesses, I will be able to share contact details with people I meet. And I always invite them to come and visit the school.

To some, it may seem an obsessive approach to networking. To me, it is central to the job: getting our school known to the community and then getting the community into the school.

Visitors comment on how unfazed our students are when we take a tour of the classrooms. This is an important way for students and staff to see that our school is not separate from the world outside. The world outside comes in and looks around.

All this is why - unfashionably, I suspect - I like the idea of long-term headship. I am attracted to the concept of school leaders who hang around for a while, who see the reality of school leadership as being about more than plate-spinning.

The short-term view of headship is that you parachute into a community, put in place some quick fixes, see some immediate and superficial signs of success and then bolt off to the next gig. You set lots of plates spinning, move on and leave someone else to pick up the pieces.

A deeper view of school leadership savours its complexity, recognising that while some quick fixes may be necessary (change the school website, smarten the uniform, improve the newsletter), the deeper stuff of school improvement inevitably takes time. It also requires engaging with the community: being part of local events and, critically, getting local people inside your school.

Outward-facing leadership has its risks. You must not get so beguiled by the external stuff that you lose interest in the day job and stop paying attention to details inside the school. However, you do have to make connections and be seen to do so. In his book Thinking Allowed on Schooling, Mick Waters says that one of the key differences between private and state education is that private schools teach the power of networking. Yet it is something that all school leaders should be doing.

Geoff Barton is headteacher of King Edward VI School in Bury St Edmunds, England.

In short

  • School leaders should be excellent networkers, be it with the local press or the local community.
  • This is because a school leader should be a visible part of the community surrounding the school in order to connect it to the real world.
  • It is also important because schools can be the glue that holds increasingly fragmented communities together.
  • Attending local events and making sure that you exchange business cards is the easiest way to build connections.

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