Who can we turn to for advice?

3rd September 2004 at 01:00
PATRICK MCDERMOTT ANSWERS YOUR LEADERSHIP QUESTIONS

My LEA provides the organisational support that our school and others in the area need, such as funding, personnel services, and buildings. However, what it does not have is the capacity for strategic advice, such as in curriculum and development issues. How can we, as a group of local headteachers, go about ensuring that we receive the assistance we need?

Traditionally LEAs have been the main source of support for schools.

However, increasingly, this is less often the case. Many schools now shop around for services as greater autonomy has led them to look for expertise outside their LEAs. Private consultants and private companies enjoy rich pickings from schools with delegated budgets. This in turn has led not just to overt competition between LEAs and the private sector but has also resulted in the further lessening of LEAs' capacity to provide quality support. This appears to be the case where you and your colleagues are. You want and deserve good support but judge that your LEA does not possess the capacity to meet your needs.

I am sure that you and your colleagues have investigated the private consultant, private-sector route. So is there an alternative?

One of the remarkable aspects of the involvement of consultants in schools centres on who these consultants are. Many are successful headteachers who have been seduced into early retirement or who have been invited to act as consultants for a variety of reasons.

Have you and your colleagues thought of short-circuiting this process in the following way? What if your LEA began to draw up, with the assistance of you and your colleague headteachers, a data bank of expertise that existed locally, both at headteacher level and at individual school level, for the purpose of sharing that proficiency with other schools?

Such an initiative would demand a high level of trust and commitment from all schools and among yourselves as headteachers. However, the benefits beyond quality support and professional challenge to you and the area would be immense in terms of genuine collaboration and everyone working for the common good. The "us versus them" ethos is replaced by common agreement, shared values, mutual trust and respect. Working "against" is replaced by working "with"and shared accountability replaces personal criticism.

An extension to this model could be that each headteacher has an LEA role as well as a school role so that all heads, whatever their circumstances and challenges, know that they are regarded as having something positive to offer other schools. The LEA could co-ordinate this and headteachers could drive it. Perhaps, as a result of headteachers operating in trios as critical friends, they themselves will uncover the nature and purpose of the assistance required in various schools rather than feeling as though it has been imposed from outside by someone who does not attract the same level of respect and professional credibility that a fellow headteacher would.

Only you will know if this model will suit you and your colleagues. It may appear to be a radical solution but it is one that has the potential for immense collaborative activity and for raising standards of achievement in schools in a sustainable and manageable way. The model does presuppose that there is a level of expertise locally that can be identified, harnessed and shared. The starting point is to create the necessary collaborative spirit among your colleagues and the LEA so that this expertise can be surfaced, logged and is made available for other schools. Let me know what you think and if you try it out then feed back the results so that your work can be shared with others.

Patrick McDermott is head of St Joseph's Catholic college, an 11-18 girls' school, in Bradford. This is his third headship, and he has been a head for 12 years and a teacher for 27. He is a facilitator for the National College for School Leadership and mentored Catholic heads for 10 years. Do you have a leadership question? Email susan.young@tes.co.uk

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