There really is strength in numbers

3rd December 2004 at 00:00
Patricia denison answers your leadership questions

I have recently been invited to join a local network of schools with the purpose of working together on some school improvement initiatives. There is pressure on me to join because our feeder infant school is very keen, and our joint governing body would no doubt want the school's involvement.

My problem is that it is impossible for me to add one more task to my already over-stacked life. I am struggling with planning, preparation and assessment time, my budget is in deficit, the school's numbers are falling and I am increasingly energy depleted. I have to say 'No'.

Your exhaustion and downhearted view of life are very evident, and any headteacher who has ever felt the same will sympathise.

I wonder if you might be more than a little wearied by the time of year.

Very few of us feel a surge of energy as autumn comes to an end and we know that we have months ahead of dark mornings and evenings, coping with staff illness and our own plummeting optimism.

The first thing to say is that you are not alone. Most of us, from time to time, feel overwhelmed by the size and complexity of the head's role.

Often, our instinct is to work harder and longer, to put our heads down and cut ourselves off from likely sources of support. Heads who find themselves suffering from SAD - Seasonal Affective Disorder - also tend to mentally beat themselves up, convinced that they ought to be coping. They believe that somehow, if they were better organised, more imaginative, fitter, cleverer, they would be on top of the job.

I firmly believe that every head should get a support group and give a high priority to meeting with that group, both to derive huge benefits personally and to make significant contributions to colleagues' well-being.

You might not be a natural collaborator, but there may be a price to pay.

This could be the time for you to act against type, to think of this invitation as an opportunity to start sharing the load and giving your teachers an entitlement to professional friendship and support that they might jump at.

The Primary Learning Network Scheme is a government initiative which aims to foster and develop collaboration. It funds groups of schools who are like-minded and probably geographically close to focus on learning together.

The opportunities are manifold. Teachers put their heads together to share what works, grapple with what doesn't, try things out, experiment and take risks, and thus have the potential to be formidable agents for change.

Together, they will be able to decide on a common focus and buy the necessary time - instead of attempting to be creative at the end of a teaching day - to engage in proper professional dialogue. They will have the power to obtain resources that they have collectively identified as being crucial to learning improvement. They could plan shared adult learning sessions, visit one another's classrooms and participate in classroom action research for the collective good. Teachers talking together will improve pupil learning far more effectively (and enjoyably) than any well-intentioned, expertly designed, expensively bound national strategy.

The scheme is teacher-driven. It's about teachers, not the Department for Education and Skills or the local education authority, making decisions, articulating what and how they want to achieve. We want to hear teachers saying "This is what we want to do and here is what we need" instead of "Do we have to?" and "Are we allowed?"

Once primary networks are running, they will doubtless attach themselves to a feeder secondary or two and not only explore further opportunities to work together on learning, but capitalise on even bigger chunks of available funding to create powerful buying potential. Problems which individual schools are struggling with, in terms of creating PPA time, could well be solved when schools share the cost of sports coaches, arts practitioners and IT technicians.

How reassuring, too, for parents to realise that a group of schools are working closely together to provide the very best for all the community's children.

The final beneficiary is you. Through this scheme, your teachers will grow; they will realise that they have the capability to decide, choose and influence. It is this experience which builds leaders, and, needless to say, the most effective injection of energy and optimism administered to heads under siege comes from the knowledge that the school is being led at many levels. You might have to come to the conclusion that your teachers need oxygen and that you are not its sole supplier.

Patricia Denison is head of a village primary, near Woking, Surrey. She has been in education for 25 years, 14 in headship, and is a facilitator with the National College for School Leadership's new visions programme for heads. Do you have a leadership question? Email

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