Leadership from the pressure cooker
A study of the stresses that fall on headteachers fails to pay enough attention to key responsibilities, says Mary Marsh.
One of the hazards of headship is facing up to any analysis about what an effective head should be like. Words such as "strong", "outstanding", "visionary" leap off the page. It is inevitable that you will confront something you would like to have done but you have not got there yet, such is the complexity of your range of responsibilities.
Gerald Grace provides a thought-provoking presentation of the issues surrounding leadership in schools in this extended, discursive essay on policy scholarship and he provides such momentsof discomfort.
The book is a source of questions rather than answers and it is not intended as a manual of "how to do it". On the contrary, Grace is critical of much of the simplistic technical guidance given in recent literature about management in education. He is concerned to contextualise educational leadership in the complexity of its full historical, cultural and political background. But surely this is not exclusive to schools? Effective leadership of any organisation must take account of the environment in which it is operating including the background, constraints and opportunities. Public-sector management in general has to take particular note of the political dimension.
He highlights the enduring patriarchal hierarchy of schools, in spite of the Sixties and Seventies when he saw "progressive" innovation to be possible. Schools are slow to change and learn from effective management in other organisations. This is not just finance and marketing as Grace suggests. He does not acknowledge, for example, the importance of recent developments in human resource management and quality assurance which can be learnt from outside education. He is over-pessimistic about the scale of development of open, collaborative and more democratic styles of leadership in schools.
Grace makes a direct challenge to headteachers to ensure that there is the important space to be reflective. He recognises the pressure of what he calls "work intensification" since the implementation of the 1980s Education Acts and the difficulty this presents for both heads and governing bodies.
His research highlights four areas which present particular pressures and conflicts: the developing relationship with governors, and the balance of roles and responsibilities; the loss of the head's autonomy in curriculum and assessment following the 1988 Education Reform Act; the demands of market management (which Grace fears will dominate); the moral and professional dilemmas where there are conflicts of values, such as over admissions and exclusions.
These pressures are all readily recognisable from my own experience but they have not dominated to the extent that Grace suggests. He is right to point out the complexity of the ethical dilemmas and the lack of training and support for heads in this area. A very successful conference of secondary heads in Hertfordshire recently focused on the issue of values, so it can be done. Catholic heads will find their dilemmas highlighted in the chapter devoted to this.
The key responsibility of headship is the quality of teaching and learning, as Her Majesty's Chief Inspector Chris Woodhead pointed out in his annual report this year. With the demands of recent years, as presented by Grace, it has been hard to make this the priority. He interviewed heads between 1990 and 1994. There is more freedom now within the requirements of the revised national curriculum than is generally recognised as yet.
There is a chapter on women in headship which presents a limited perspective, possibly because it came from a small sample mainly of primary heads in the North-East of England where male heads are very dominant numerically. Questions about women in management and leadership styles have been the subject of much wider debate in and outside of education.
Of greatest value for me as a practising head were the well-selected quotes from the research interviewsquestionnaires. They were enlightening. Many heads would join me in recognising ourselves as the mediators within our schools for the extensive demands of the change process of the past five years. The tension and conflict between local autonomy and strong centralisation were evident. In this research, the freedoms of local management were appreciated more wholeheartedly by secondary heads. I have been very conscious of the sharper pressure on my primary colleagues provided by the Nineties reforms.
This is a book for reflective practitioners of school leadership who are good at time management for extended reading. Its emphasis is on organisational frameworks, relationships and professional dilemmas.
I shall keep these demands in proportion and continue my focus on the important questions of quality of teaching and learning and the reality of life in the classroom as I move from one headshipto another.
Grace concludes by challenging what he sees as the alternative values which may dominate in future, those of the market culture or those of democratic culture. Perhaps the greatest challenge will be to reconcile them.
* Mary Marsh has just taken over as head of Holland Park School, London.