Strike the right balance

25th June 2004 at 01:00
Michael Duffy welcomes a prescription for secure yet dynamic headship

Individual Schools, Unique Solutions

By Adrian Raynor

RoutledgeFalmer pound;22.50

Titles are important, and Adrian Raynor's title tells the story. Raynor, an experienced secondary head now lecturing on management and education, has significant reservations about the highly prescriptive policies and practices of recent years. The current stress on compliance, accountability and control is understandable, he says, but is fundamentally misconceived; there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all solution; we cannot always - or even often - "know what works".

That is because schools, like the learning they contain, are deeply complex systems. They are shaped by deeply complex contextual factors, too - and in return, they shape and change those factors. They have to be simultaneously stable and dynamic. They are organisms, not organisations: they are not susceptible to "measurement" and "control". As everyone who has worked in one of them knows, they generate their own chemistry.

So the leadership of schools is complex, problematic - and exciting. As Raynor describes it, it is more like walking a tightrope than steering a ship. Essentially, it rests on the ability to recognise (and then attain) the "edge of chaos" - the place where the school is halfway between equilibrium (organisation) and anarchy (disorganisation). The edge of chaos is where things happen, where there is the potential for change and creativity. It is, he says, an exciting place. His book is full of sensible advice on how to reach it and exploit it.

But there is a problem. Schools may bring about change, but teachers yearn for stability. "Chaos", to most of them, is what happens in a badly taught Year 11 class on a wet Friday afternoon; frightening, not exciting.

So Raynor takes considerable pains to illustrate his practical advice with an introduction to the complexity theory that underpins it - the antithesis to the Newtonian laws of immutable forces and predictable reactions that have hitherto, he says, shaped our concept of how things (and organisations) work. Complexity theory says organisms are adaptive, that they have internal dynamism, that they change in unforeseen and unforeseeable ways. They are in equilibrium only when they are dead. For organisms, read schools.

Raynor cites case histories of leadership in schools he has studied, arguing that their improvement has more to do with "leadership" than with "management", and that leadership is more about intuition, contingency and response than about specific skills. Above all, he says, it is about creating "emergence": the consensus inside a school that change is needed, and the willingness to talk about it - something that never happens if people are frightened to make mistakes.

That leads him to the practicalities of his advice: an area everyone with leadership responsibilities in school will find helpful. Again, the chapter headings reflect the content. "The art of juggling" is about recognising and keeping in balance the conflicting needs and demands of the school's context; "The art of steering" about knowing when to push and when to let things happen; "The paradox of leadership" is about the tension between planning for and achieving creativity. There is an excellent chapter on the importance of relationships: sound advice on developing the skills of trusting, and a valuable reminder that good schools recognise that "redundancy" is important - that not everything discussed or planned will ever come to action. I was impressed with the section on "vision": how helpful to be reminded that vision-in-practice (the author's term) should be, in a way, akin to poetry - not too precise, but precise enough; general, but open to interpretation.

And that, in essence, is his leadership prescription. Readers will make their own minds up about the systems theory that underlies the argument, and some may find the jargon too obtrusive. But few will not be stimulated to think more deeply about their school's strengths and weaknesses, and about their own. It also challenges some of the current prescriptions for school improvement, particularly in the area of performance management. If innovation is to be encouraged, for instance, "fuzzy" targets may be more productive - than the Smart ones currently required; if "areas of development" are the focus, work on a teacher's strengths may be more sensible than work on his or her weaknesses. Similarly, job descriptions should emphasise desired outcomes - not the list of task-related inputs they often involve at present.

This book deals with the reality of school leadership, not just the theory.

It starts with how things are. By understanding that, it says, we can put our schools into a position where they can move themselves forward. That, it says, rather than the application of policies, strategies and monitoring, is what leadership is about.

If there is a reservation, it is that there is hardly any mention of the pupil; surely, the school's pre-eminent concern. In a sense, though, the omission is deliberate. After all, everything said in this thoughtful and persuasive book applies also to the classroom, and to the role of the teacher inside it. On that basis, it has, perhaps, a wider relevance than its title would imply, and can be more widely recommended.

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