Off with their heads

1st May 2006 at 01:00

Could federations of schools solve the problem of headteacher shortages? Martin Whittaker reports

Does every school need a head? Not according to new research by the National College for School Leadership, which says new models of leadership could be an answer to headteacher shortages.

The research, to be launched at the national college's annual conference on Monday, looks at alternative forms of school leadership, many of which involve heads working with more than one school. It suggests that this system of leadership approach would need fewer heads and would keep existing heads in the job by offering new challenges and incentives.

It would create more professional development opportunities for other school staff, giving deputies and middle leaders the chance of new responsibilities and to experience headship first-hand. And it would improve struggling schools, as the most successful heads have a chance to make an impact on other schools, says the NCSL.

Steve Munby, its chief executive, said: "We are entering a new era in school leadership which is challenging the long-held assumption that every school needs its own headteacher.

"In future school leadership may not be about just leading individual institutions, but about working in the wider system, although often still having one school as a base."

One study, called New Models of Headship, looks at three alternative models of leadership - executive headship, school federations and co-headship, and considers their viability. Part of the research studied how school federations work in the Netherlands, and the potential benefits for federated schools in the UK of having joint inspections, admissions policies and budgets.

The average Dutch federation comprises 11 schools. Most of the country's 7,000 primary schools have boards governing two or more schools.

Where principals have responsibility for more than one school, a specific teacher may provide a daily point of contact for parents and staff in the head's absence. Some federations employ a superintendent, who is responsible for their overall strategic management.

Advantages cited by heads leading more than one school included more time to lead, being more prepared, less tired and more relaxed, and benefits to other staff through distributed leadership.

Disadvantages included initial tensions with staff, concern about no longer teaching and losing contact with the children, and a sense of decreasing influence in the classroom.

The Dunbury school is a federation of three village first schools near Blandford in Dorset. The schools merged 12 years ago, making it one of the first federations in the country. Although its three sites are a few miles apart it has one head, one governing body and a single budget. Last year it had its first joint inspection which declared it a good school.

Head Simon France provides strategic management, while the rather militaristically-titled "base leaders", all appointed from within the school, take on the day-to-day management of each site.

This is Simon France's first headship. He says the benefits are the flexibility in sharing resources between three sites and wider career development opportunities for staff. Is it the future given the headteacher shortage?

"I think so, he says. "It's very interesting when people ask how you do your job. But once you have been here for a while, you think it's strange that people do anything else.

"It seems strange to me now that people spend all their time in one building. It's always exciting, it's always challenging."

Hevingham and Marsham primaries, two small village schools near Norwich, went into partnership under one head six years ago. It was one of three such partnerships formed in Norfolk, and all the heads involved are still in post. Hevingham and Marsham head Simon East says: "In terms of recruitment and retention it became an attractive position, because it's an interesting place to be and people want to stay involved with it.

"I don't think any of us in these positions would be where we are if the schools had been stand-alone small schools, because we were all keen to develop our own careers."

Before the partnership he taught four days a week while leading Hevingham primary out of special measures. "It was impossible, to be quite honest."

The partnership reduced his teaching time and lightened the load on his middle management. "In many respects we are organised like a much larger school, but parents don't see that. They still think of us being local village schools, but underneath that we have the structure of a much larger school and all the benefits."

Toby Salt was an executive head of two federated schools with a joint governing body - Littlegreen and St Anthony's special schools in West Sussex, with Chichester high school for boys as an associate member.

Federation of the two schools saw attendance and pupil performance rise at both. The leadership teams of both schools were restructured, with one executive head, an operational head, and a head of teaching and learning in both schools.

Mr Salt is now NCSL's director of school leadership development. He says federation allowed the schools to share the potential of both leadership teams. But it's not a panacea, he says. "It is one possible leadership model and one possible opportunity to create additional capacity.

"What it did for me was to allow me to have more opportunity for strategic leadership and direction. It also allowed me to create additional leadership capacity in others."

Mick Brookes, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, warned that given current workloads, you cannot simply do away with the head's post.

"I rather suspect that if you deleted some headteachers' posts, you would have to then reinvent them again. Who deals, for instance, with irate or anxious parents in the morning, who deals with the school's self-evaluation, who deals with teachers who are in difficulty in their classroom? This is the work of the head.

"I really do think we would just be reinventing the head. We have one or two examples of where that's happened. They have reinvented the head on a lower pay scale."

leadership 28

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