In shoe leather we trust
A long time ago, I was being interviewed for a job when the head leaned forward and pointed to his feet. I jerked back, alarmed that he'd detected tropical hookworm, but he was making a management point.
"These are my main headship tools," he said. "I don't mean kicking backsides - I mean walking around the corridors."
In the days when educational theory was coming into its own, he seemed oddly old-fashioned. But maybe he was ahead of his time - because there's a growing feeling that the harder it becomes for heads to escape their offices, the more important it is that they should be doing exactly that.
It's a view that I confirmed on a visit to the Chalfonts community college, Buckinghamshire, where head Sue Tanner regards being out and about as one of the cornerstones of her drive for a unanimous approach to raising standards at the school.
"Consistency" is her key word. And if you're lucky, she'll make the point by giving you a stick of rock with "Chalfonts Rocks" printed all the way through it.
"An assessor for Investors in People said we were like a stick of seaside rock - bite in anywhere and the message is the same," she says.
But the story begins a little earlier - with a 2003 report from the Office for Standards in Education. "The headline said, 'A very good school with some excellent features'," she explains. "So I asked the lead inspector what we'd have to do to be 'excellent' in all respects. He said the thing that would make the difference would be consistency."
Every school leader knows that it's one thing to publish policies, but making sure that everyone operates them in the same way is quite another.
At the Chalfonts all the usual tactics are used - understanding and ownership of policies, clarity of written procedures, staff briefings, departmental meetings, NQT mentoring. But even to the casual visitor, it is clear that if there is one single driver of consistency here, it's a head who is out of her study and moving around the building.
On the day I walked with her, she began by spotting a minor rule-breaker - a boy who was early for school and snacking in the playground instead of in the cafe provided. She knew his name, mildly admonished him, then discreetly followed him to make sure he made it to the cafe.
In the classes, she picked up irregularities of school uniform, checked some homework diaries, and pointed out to me when the teacher was carrying out the seating policy (boys and girls together in pairs). She also noted which lessons were being properly finished off, rather than hurriedly against the bell.
There were no histrionics, no raised voices, no punishments, lots of praise, and quite a bit of good-natured banter with some great kids. But the messages were powerful, and directed towards teachers as much as students.
We finished with a visit to a special assembly in which this year's leavers were being briefed by a senior teacher about the appropriate conduct at their leavers' prom. It was done with exactly the right combination of encouragement and gentle warning. Ms Tanner reinforced it as much with her presence as with the few words she added.
What was most striking was that everyone was clearly used to seeing her around. There was no drama when she entered a classroom, and encounters in the corridor involved casual and friendly greetings, although you got the distinct feeling that she wasn't missing a trick.
"Being around the school means I can check that what people have been reporting to me is the reality," she says. "I've got the whole view, so I tend to notice things that other people don't."
But making it happen - walking away from the phone, the visitors, the paperwork - takes real determination.
"You've got to make time," says Ms Tanner. "There's no doubt in my mind that it's very important. Students like it, colleagues like it. Rarely would I not do it."
Everything she said seemed familiar. Then I remembered hearing a very similar story from Caroline Badyal, head of the much-improved Dartmouth high school in Sandwell, in the West Midlands. Earlier this year, she described to me some of the strategies she and her colleagues have used to raise attendance and drive down poor behaviour. At the end of that conversation, she said: "The most powerful tool is the profile of the senior team around the school."
After I'd seen Sue Tanner in action, I called Caroline Badyal.
"It's absolutely essential," she said. "We go into lessons, into toilets and across the field into practical sessions."
"And would that be every day?" I asked her.
"Gosh, yes. No question about it. You just have to prioritise.
"I have a full in-tray, I've just had a lesson to teach and I'm interviewing later, but I'll still get round the school."
None of this is particularly new, of course. More than 20 years ago, the management guru Tom Peters was writing about "management by wandering around" (MBWA) in his bookIn Search of Excellence.
He adapted the idea from the technology firm Hewlett Packard, and it is a gospel he still preaches.
"I am a zealot," he says on his website. "I swear by MBWA in any and all circumstances," But Mr Peters also knows that it's not easy.
"'Aimless wandering' takes discipline," he says.
But it won't necessarily be effective unless certain principles are in place, the most important of which is sincerity. You have to mean it - and not be doing it just because Tom Peters says it's a good idea.
As Sue Tanner puts it: "It only feels genuine if it is genuine."
SOME BENEFITS OF 'MANAGEMENT BY WANDERING AROUND' (MBWA)
* Reinforcing the message: If heads can pick up litter and check behaviour and routine, then others are more likely to do likewise.
* Getting to know people: It cuts through the hierarchy, and you meet everyone on the same terms.
* Building trust: Pupils and staff appreciate openness and accessibility.
* Plenty for the planning: You'll always pick up something for the management meeting.
* Gathering knowledge: You'll learn far more than you ever pick up in meetings. Another management guru, W Edwards Deming, once wrote: "If you wait for people to come to you, you'll only get small problems. You must go and find them. The big problems are where people don't realise they have one in the first place."
* Your own accountability: It's all too easyto overlook this vitally important factor. Bear in mind that this is a two-way process. It can be very uncomfortable to have to face a class, a child or a colleague if you've failed to deliver on a promise.
Useful websites www.tompeters.com