'Unsatisfactory' just isn't good enough

24th March 2006 at 00:00
A head's role is crucial and this must be reflected in the way they are selected, says Neil Paterson

If the recent HMIE report is anything to go by, a worrying proportion of schools are being failed by the very people who are meant to be leading them to success. The last report from the inspectors classified around 20 per cent of schools as having only "fair" or "unsatisfactory" leadership.

Given that we have around 2,500 schools in Scotland, this means we have around 500 schools where leadership ranges from just "OK" to "poor".

If we assume, as a conservative illustration, that the average tenure of a headteacher is 10 years, and assume an average school roll of 500, the number of pupils - our sons, daughters, nieces, nephews - who are passing through schools led by these "fair" and "unsatisfactory" headteachers is frightening; in the tens of thousands at least.

I have two boys, one of whom is about to go to secondary school this year.

Reflecting, as parents do, I recalled vividly my first week at secondary school. The new first-years arrived at the same time as a new headteacher, Mr Lamont, a strict disciplinarian who was firm but fair. He spoke to us all on our first day and, while I was not aware of this at the time, he gave us his vision for the school: he was going to tackle issues such as discipline, uniforms, respect. Sitting there, I recall seeing a number of teachers listening to this, engaged in conversation - his message was obviously aimed as much at them as us.

In his first week, he expelled 12 pupils. He was the right type of headteacher at the right time for that school. I know I benefited from the type of school ethos he created; but, on reflection, I wonder what the school would have been like had he not been there. Would I have found myself in an environment created by a "fair" or "unsatisfactory"


In my career, I have worked with many executives and senior managers in major public and private sector organisations. I have also had the privilege of working with many primary and secondary headteachers and their senior management teams, which can vary from two people to seven. When I compare school leadership with other organisations, I have seen leaders that could only be described as world class. But I have also seen schools where the head is a reluctant leader who is stuck in a role they hate. They are struggling and they are stuck in it, either professionally or, more commonly, financially. They are sitting it out waiting for retirement. This scenario is seen in other professions too - particularly among those in management positions.

In my experience, to achieve excellence in school leadership you need to have headteacher and senior management pulling in the same direction. They should be, and should be seen to be, a team; each person should have clear remits and be held accountable for delivering on these by the headteacher and his or her peers. They should have a common set of work and performance standards that are guarded and maintained by each of them - and mediocrity should not be tolerated.

It's important that the school's practices and procedures are continually "groomed" for improvement and, of equal importance, that the school should identify what it should stop doing. Ultimately, the ideal scenario is that a climate is fostered where everyone - staff, pupils, support staff - is encouraged and allowed to give of their best.

Arguably, the headteacher plays the key role in our society today. If we think about where we can make a difference and a lasting impact on Scotland, we need look no further than this difficult, challenging, but highly rewarding role. All the initiatives that surround education in Scotland - "schools of ambition", "enterprise in schools", "citizenship" - are important. However, without tackling the situation where 20 per cent of our headteachers are either performing poorly or barely adequately, I don't believe that any progress we make will go far enough. What we need is a concerted and focused effort to improve the standard of leadership in headteachers; otherwise we are just wasting our time.

In schools, we can learn some lessons from the private sector where, for companies that are really serious about leadership and performance, the whole topic of talent management is now a top priority at board level. They have selection processes which are hugely discerning so that the right person is found for a senior role; shareholders don't want someone who is going to put in a "fair" or "unsatisfactory" performance.

Selection of headteachers needs to be right. It should follow the best practice in other industries and professions and be aimed at getting the right person to match the unique context and life cycle of each school.

There are many people who are "qualified" to be headteachers - but which ones are able to really excel and build an excellent school? To do that, you need real leadership qualities that cannot be found in any qualifications.

After the selection process, the best companies don't just leave their new manager to get on with it and, in many cases, coaching is provided regardless of experience. Dead wood at the top is identified and removed, and opportunities are created for those who want to succeed.

There is a danger that the role of headteacher is becoming seen as somehow not worth the effort, or undoable. For a 35-year-old principal teacher who is passionate about teaching and making a difference to the lives of children, does a headteacher's job look attractive? Are we turning the right people off applying?

We need to make the headteacher's job attractive to the people for whom "fair" or "unsatisfactory" just isn't good enough.

Neil Paterson is director of the Hay Group consultancy.

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