Myths and legends of the superheads

29th April 2005 at 01:00
Leadership of a school rests on a lot more than heroic intervention in times of crisis, says Bob Holmes

Having been faced with another set of theories from his future son-in-law, Thomas More tells Roper his wish is: "When your head's finished turning, your face is to the front again." Those lines from A Man for all Seasons represent sound advice for Roper; they could equally apply to what has been happening to education in Scotland for some time - and, more significantly, they apply to what is expected of headteachers.

The Scottish Qualification for Headship identifies four key functions.

These are: managing teaching and learning; managing people; managing policy and planning; and managing resources and finance. These functions are related to the interpersonal and intellectual abilities that the individual may or may not have. Ultimately, the key purpose of the headteacher is to provide leadership and management which enable a school to give every pupil the highest quality of educational opportunity.

The majority of headteachers in Scotland do not hold the Qualification for Headship - whether it is of value in carrying out the demands of the post is another argument. So there is no way of knowing whether they acquired the "competencies". Indeed, it is interesting to note that recently a headteacher in Glasgow, the subject of an inquiry, was described as having a particular "style". Where does that rank in the scheme of competencies? Indeed, where would one find that in a person specification?

Further, there has been an overtly political agenda recently which asserts that the success or failure of a school is dependent on the leadership of the headteacher. Thus has arisen the cult of the "superhead" - the heroic figure who is parachuted into a school and single-handedly turns the place around. Not only is this an unrealistic assessment, it does a great disservice to dedicated, hard-working and talented teachers. There are lots of reasons a school "fails" - whatever that means.

Take the corollary of this. If a school is so dependent for success on the headteacher, what happens to that individual when the school "fails"? Is the head sacked? Is the head, as appears to be the case in private enterprise, given a huge performance bonus? No, life goes on much as before. Inspectors may arrive and write coded reports about action points.

The authority may send in quality improvement officers. Crucially, though, fundamental change will not be effected.

Is there then a case for short-term contracts? A headteacher could be given three years to achieve certain things. If not, the contract will not be renewed. Would they be employed elsewhere? A useful comparison might be with the chief executive officer of Tesco, arguably one of this country's success stories, who is on a rolling short-term contract. If sales figures start to fall, so does the CEO. That kind of approach to "heroic intervention" would certainly focus the mind.

However, we ought not to be surprised when teachers, and headteachers, make little progress through the tangle of ill-prepared and unconnected directives that emanate from the policy-makers. Taking a conspiracy theory approach, it may well be the politicians have decided that, if teachers are kept busy enough with new initiatives, they will not know what is really happening or really important so they will not be able to make a fuss about it. Ultimately, however, the lack of progress can be directly related to the expectations and limitations placed on headteachers and therefore on schools.

There is a clear tension between leadership and management. It has been suggested that leadership is about doing the right things; while management is about doing things right. Let me suggest a simple example - paperwork.

The leader head might well ignore the paperwork because the more important part of the day is about supporting colleagues in a practical way. The manager head will attend to the paperwork because that is what local HQ will expect. Doing things right stifles creativity and imaginative responses to the real business of education: meeting the needs of the pupils.

Taking a more pragmatic view, if you want a manager, why not employ a manager? If you want someone to manage people, why not appoint a human resources manager? If you want a leader, why not employ a leader? If you want someone to manage resources and budgets, why not employ an accountant? If you want someone to patrol the corridors and playgrounds, why not employ a security officer?

In short, do we not really need to decide what we want from and expect of headteachers? Presently, employers expect too much. Michael Fullan, writing in The TES some time ago, argued that "we need lots of leaders". What I took from that article was that the central role of the leader was to empower all staff in the school so that they themselves could become leaders in whichever way was appropriate. Taken to its logical conclusion, all teachers would then be able to empower pupils to the extent that they could also lead.

Several writers, including Manz and Sims Jnr, have asserted that this is the only way forward. The latter suggests that "leading others to lead themselves means bringing out the best, but mainly in others, not just in oneself". Given the hierarchical structures and patronage that have existed in education for decades, I wonder who will have the courage to take the first step in a radical new direction?

I cannot say that I am optimistic. Two things come to mind. Lines from W B Yeats: "The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity." The second is a story about a candidate for a headteacher's post. After telling him that he had been unsuccessful, the caller added: "We thought you were by far the best, but we also thought you lacked a sense of humour."

Now, that's funny.

Bob Holmes was formerly depute rector of Hawick High.

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