Too much love can be their ruin

8th October 2004 at 01:00
Patricia Denison answers your leadership questions

I have just taken over a school whose previous head was extremely popular and had been there more than 20 years. The staff constantly talk about him, and make it clear that I do not measure up.

The issue is that they ask my permission in all areas of the school's life and seem unable to think for themselves. They expect me to know all the answers and possess expertise in all subjects. I want to make some radical changes to their approaches to teaching and learning, but I seem to be the only one with any vision.

Your predecessor sounds like a number of highly charismatic, avuncular figures who populated our schools and are now a fast-disappearing generation of heads. They were popular with pupils, staff and parents, who knew their place, did not dream of questioning and accepted with deference the norms and practices of the school.

These heads often behaved like benign dictators - they held all the power and control and graciously meted out favours. Unfortunately for their teachers, their style, during a period of wide-ranging diktats from above has, to a large extent, been disabling. Teachers who work in their schools have implemented all sorts of imposed changes, having been encouraged to hold the view that their job is to teach, not think.

My view is that heads like these have been responsible for mediocre performance of both pupils and staff. The problem is how to create a climate which will not only support change but stimulate it.

The first step is to hand over areas of control. You should disabuse the staff of the idea that you alone hold the secret of life. One way to do this is to resist any temptation to provide solutions, suggest strategies, give advice or say "if I were you..."

You need to create opportunities to engage individual teachers in dialogue which is going to require them to think and reflect on their practice.

Simple questions are often the most powerful. "What are these children doing?" can trigger discussion about the nature of learning. Talking about what is happening in their classroom gives teachers permission to assume some control over what they do.

You probably hear phrases such as "have to", "should", "can't". These need challenging, often by repeating them with a question mark. Gradually, teachers will come to expect to engage in reflection and enquiry. They will understand that they are making decisions because of a choice, not an obligation. This can be hugely empowering for people who previously did as they were told.

They will learn to base their choices on evidence, by becoming attuned to pupil response and behaviour, as well as products of work. In time, given encouragement, they will involve their colleagues in a reflective, questioning dialogue, becoming skilled and confident enquirers and investigators. Their ability to gather and interpret data will enable them to regard it as a range of responses and behaviours which help them to teach.

Once teachers realise that they have the power to make choices and decisions about their own behaviour, they will cease to ask permission.

They will be moving out of a culture of dependence.

You need to become the lead enquirer, and to act as a role model. You will develop incisive questioning, purposeful listening and a nose for unchallenged assumptions. If this is not your natural style, stick with it and practise. Your job is to develop leadership throughout the school, facilitating and coaching, and nurturing a climate of resourcefulness.

Patricia Denison is head of a village primary, near Woking, Surrey. She is a facilitator with the National College for School Leadership's new visions programme for heads. Do you have a leadership question? Email

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today