Steven Hastings talks to a head who's studying a car factory for tips on performance management
Michael Crane is fascinated by high performance. He spends most of his week not at John Port school in Etwall near Derby, where he has been headteacher for the past seven years, but at the Toyota factory a few miles down the road.
And it's not the 0-60mph times of the latest sports models which are the focus of his attention - it's the performance levels of the people who build them.
Mr Crane is one of a handful of heads who hold research fellowships at the National College for School Leadership (NCSL). His task is to examine performance management strategies in public and private companies, and to report on how these could be applied to teaching.
The NCSL, established in Nottingham in 1999 to improve the quality of leadership in schools, sees practitioner-led research as an important part of its remit. It has invested pound;400,000 in a first round of fellowships, with plans to expand the scheme next year. "We could leave this kind of investigation to academics," says David Jackson, the NCSL's director of research. "But we believe it's vital for those involved in teaching to lead the way."
The fellowship awards allow participants to spend 100 days out of post to pursue their research - with schools financially compensated for their absence. Mr Crane has opted to spend three days a week on his project over eight months. But the arrangement hasn't always been straightforward. "I hadn't realised how difficult it would be to run a school on a two-day week," he admits. "The deputies sharing the acting head duties are very capable. But there are many things which you just can't, or don't want to, avoid - interviewing new staff, Ofsted paperwork, governors' meetings, sports day. Weekends have become a thing of the past."
Interest in his research subject spurs him on. He is critical of the way edicts from the Department for Education and Skills have shaped performance assessment in schools. He says the Government sees assessment as a "bolt-on activity" rather than an integral part of working practice. "Performance management is a sensitive issue. If it's seen as imposed by the DfES, it won't work. People have to be part of the process."
This is where his experience at Toyota has proved a revelation. While performance-related pay has been embraced only tentatively in teaching, in other businesses it is a fundamental principle. "If there are 25 staff working in a Toyota department, they are ranked 1-25 for their performance. They are then divided into several different bands and paid accordingly."
Given that performance assessment still raises teachers' hackles, a staffroom "squash ladder" seems a sure-fire recipe for unhappy staff. Mr Crane admits that the skill in performance management lies in keeping motivated those who miss out on rewards. "A Toyota employee failing to reach a particular attainment level is offered support and training to ensure he or she makes the grade the following year."
But he is well aware that the methods of a multinational company can't always be transplanted into a school environment, largely because of money. "I might have 80 staff deserving of performance-related payments, but if I can only afford to reward 20 of them, then there will be resentment. At Toyota, they have the means to reward all deserving staff."
He also plans to look at monitoring in public-sector organisations where funds are tight, and has booked time at Derbyshire Royal Infirmary and RAF Marham in Norfolk. He has visited small rural schools where performance management is a particularly delicate task. "It's difficult for a headteacher with only two staff to reward one but not the other. He has to share a staffroom with them every day. We should explore rewards for whole schools or departments, not just individuals."
When seeking a large comprehensive school for his case studies, Michael Crane looked no further than his own. Indeed, the promise of using John Port in his research was a key factor in persuading governors that it would benefit the school to lose its head for three days a week. "It's been invaluable to stand back and review our own processes. But the ultimate aim is to produce a document useful to all schools."
He hopes his 8,000-word report will be landing on DfES desks early next year. His aim, he says, is to avoid "academic waffle" and offer practical suggestions for improving performance management in schools.
The NCSL runs an ongoing programme of courses and seminars for heads and other school leaders. Details at www.ncsl.org.uk.The college will be inviting applications for the next round of research fellowships in late September.