Pass on the power

8th July 2005 at 01:00
Call Ringwood secondary college and, in the absence of principal Michael Phillips, you find three of his staff are in charge.

While Phillips was in Amsterdam attending an iNet international conference for principals, his leadership team was running the 1,380-pupil school in Melbourne, Australia. Apart from its three deputies, Ringwood has 13 "leading teachers" and each has an "ownership portfolio".

The portfolios range from a focus on teaching and learning, timetable planning, sport and administration to information technology, education, performing arts and student management.

Australian schools in the past were inward-looking and headed by an often autocratic principal who took his orders from bureaucrats in the state education department. Within the school, too, the pyramid lines of authority were clear - from the "boss" at the top to the tyro classroom teacher at the bottom.

But not any more, as Ringwood dramatically demonstrates. This is a school where a new style of leadership has devolved responsibility to the teachers and extended the boundaries beyond the school fence into the community - while also bringing the community into the school.

Claire Rafferty is in her first year as a leading teacher at Ringwood and is responsible for e-learning. She runs after-hours professional development courses for teachers from her school and others nearby.

Rafferty ran a seven-week course on integrating ICT with thinking skills and it attracted 28 teachers - including Michael Phillips. She says he took part in all the projects.

"I found it very empowering," she says. "Michael's style comes from operating with trust and, if he wants to drive change, he will take part to achieve it."

Phillips has built up networks with other principals, local businesses and manufacturing industries, as well as with community and political leaders.

On the phone from Holland, Phillips says he has tried to move away from the idea of the principal being the font of all knowledge with all decisions in his hands. "That's not sustainable in a modern organisation," he says. "One of my biggest challenges was to empower others, to allow them to take responsibility for significant areas of the college's operations."

He says one result is that the shift encourages teachers to innovate. Many are also looking to further leadership development opportunities and this year three teachers are undertaking masters degrees in school leadership.

Devolving responsibility has also allowed the principal to develop networks with others outside the school. One example is a link with Fallibroome high school in Macclesfield that began four years ago and which has enabled a sharing of leadership ideas. Groups of Ringwood students have visited Fallibroome twice while teachers from the English school have gone to Ringwood.

"It becomes common practice for us to talk about what each school is doing so we have a global perspective for our work," says Phillips.

Then there are the scholarships Phillips and the school council set up that enable teachers to attend international conferences and explore what is happening in other parts of the world.

When an application for a $200,000 (pound;85,000) state grant was rejected, Phillips sought help from local businesses and industries to back a submission to the federal government. The result was a $300,000 (pound;128,000) grant to construct an automotive and manufacturing technology centre in the school grounds.

The centre, overseen by a management committee with industry leaders on it, runs classes for pupils from Ringwood and other schools who are interested in learning a trade.

"We can no longer just rely on one source of funding," he says. "We have to be more creative in resourcing our schools."

Classes are already running for pupils from Ringwood as well as nearby private and Catholic schools, while some of the units will be delivered by local companies on their premises.

"So we are also spanning the boundaries between state, independent and Catholic schools and industries outside," says Phillips. "We need to look at all the pupils in an area rather than just those in your own school, and share resources so every pupil has access to the best learning materials."

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