Forget about hero headteachers, what's really essential for school improvement is getting everyone to pull together, writes Peter Kent
I can still remember the feeling of shock. After a year as headteacher, I had decided to interview a group of sixth-formers about their impressions of life in school. As I asked "who is the person with the greatest influence upon the school?" I could feel my pen beginning to write the correct answer ("you are"). The student thought for a moment and said "there is no one person. Students respond to different teachers and to different people".
Surely a rogue answer. I bundled the bemused young man out of the door and dragged in the next volunteer. Who did he think had the greatest influence on the school? "It is probably too simplistic to just pick out one person.
There are a variety of influences all working together." And so on. Ten interviews with not a single student picking out the head as the main force behind the school's culture. I was forced to accept that I had fallen into the trap of believing what other people said about my role. Whether you consult Ofsted, the Department for Education and Skills, National Professional Qualification for Headship or a range of academic studies, the received wisdom is the same: the head is the driving force who makes the school what it is. Could it be that my students had a point? Rather than relying so heavily upon the headteacher, could schools actually be driven by what one sixth-former called "a collaboration of different people and voices"?
A recent national initiative provided the opportunity to test this theory.
We volunteered to be one of a small group of pilot schools working with the National College for School Leadership to reduce the variation in results between different departments in the school. Professor David Reynolds has pointed out that the gap between different departments in the same school is often more significant than the variations between different schools.
Looking at my own school it was clear that he had a point. My first instinct was to take the lead in the project myself, and then I remembered those painful sixth-form interviews.
We tried a different approach. The "hero" headteacher, wanting to ride to rescue, was left nervously tethered in his office. Instead departments were put in pairs based upon academic groupings (French and German, history and geography) or upon the fact that they taught the same group of students (English and science, PE and art). We christened the project departmental partnership and asked each pairing to spend part of every training day sharing ideas and good practice. I soon found that the pairings had a more profound impact than I had previously imagined. Teachers are the world's ultimate pragmatists and if one department has some ideas that have been shown to work, then the other department is likely to want to use them.
Hence I found that German very quickly latched on to French's use of a modular GCSE syllabus, that history rapidly adopted geography's model for supervising coursework and that English and science enthusiastically swapped ideas on how each department could use oral activities. As I walked past the English staffroom I heard one colleague saying that "these scientists talk a surprising amount of sense". Is there any greater accolade?
The impact of this departmental partnership upon results has been surprisingly quick. When we began the project two years ago the gap between the A* grades achieved by French and German was 46 per cent. This summer the gap was closed to 12 per cent, with a further reduction likely next year. Over the same period PE reduced the gap between with art from 47 per cent to 2 per cent while history wiped out a 16 per cent gap between itself and geography. This process of working together has had a profound impact upon the culture of the school. Departments now seem much less "balkanised"
and much more ready to work together. Hence a recent training day on behaviour management was based around departmental partnership groupings meeting and sharing ideas and approaches that had worked within their departments. Variations certainly remain and no one is claiming to have discovered a magic formula, but I certainly have to admit that this approach based on partnership has had a more profound impact upon school improvement than any other initiative that I have been involved with.
Our experience of departments working together has convinced me that the model of the dominant headteacher, seeking to control every aspect of school life because they have been told by the DfES that this is what they should do, is a misguided one. Instead, I feel that students themselves offer the most profound insight. Genuine change that involves hearts and minds has to be based upon "a variety of influences all working together".
If people find themselves doing things only because the head has told them to do so, then they will simply wait until he or she is looking elsewhere and stop.
If this is the case, why do so many people in positions of power argue that everything revolves around the headteacher? I would suggest that it is a way to conveniently simplify a much more complex process. If it is all down to the head, then it probably is possible to genuinely transform schools in a single year as Ruth Kelly has recently suggested. However, if the students are right, and schools are about "a collaboration of different people and voices", then changing schools becomes a much more challenging, but also more rewarding process. Perhaps all of us, particularly our friends in the DfES, need the courage to listen a little more closely to the voice of students. If they tell us that for schools to improve we need less heroism and more partnership, fewer centralised targets and more collaboration, who are we to argue?
Peter Kent is headteacher of Lawrence Sheriff school, Rugby