Why heads should ask what teachers really think

30th January 2015 at 00:00
Giving leaders honest feedback improves schools, study says

Staff should rate their headteachers' leadership qualities and overall performance in the job as a means of boosting school standards, new research recommends.

All teachers should give direct feedback to school leaders on their decision-making skills, how well they listen and whether they are prepared to admit their mistakes, according to the study.

The idea is one of several suggestions for improving teaching and learning highlighted by social mobility charity the Sutton Trust in its report Developing Teachers. The trust held a major international summit on the topic in Washington DC at the end of last year, which was co-hosted with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

The report describes a strategy for leadership feedback developed by Paul Browning, headmaster of St Paul's School in Queensland, Australia, who came up with the idea after studying top school leaders as part of his PhD. He has identified 10 key qualities leaders should be assessed on, which he believes are key to good performance and improving trust between teachers and headteachers (see panel, opposite).

"Good leaders go first," Dr Browning told TESS. "I have implemented the leadership tool at my school, garnering feedback from the staff about my practices. The whole project was initially about how I could transform my school's culture of mistrust to one with high levels of trust.

"There are a couple of areas I need to work on and I have told the staff which ones they are and thanked them for their feedback."

Dr Browning added that a considerable body of research showed schools with high levels of trust were more likely to improve and achieve good student outcomes.

The Sutton Trust has identified the approach as one of 10 practical strategies from around the globe that schools should consider adopting in order to develop staff and improve the quality of their teaching.

The tactics also include "coaching triplets", where teachers work in groups of three to observe and train each other, developed by Herbert Thompson Primary School in Cardiff. Another of the approaches centres on using pupil feedback surveys effectively in teachers' professional development, as demonstrated by Aspire Public Schools in the US.

The report, which was created with the help of 17 leading UK headteachers who attended the Washington summit last year, will be presented to political parties' education teams with the aim of informing policy.

Lee Elliot Major, chief executive of the Sutton Trust, said the next government should prioritise the development of the teaching workforce.

"For years we have had a focus on the structural side of the debate - what type of schools we should have - but now there is a shift in that focus on to what actually happens to teachers in the workplace," Dr Elliot Major said. "We believe the quality of teachers can have the biggest transformational impact on a young person in terms of social mobility, and we think improving the people in the classroom will be the single biggest issue facing whoever comes in after the general election."

Dr Browning's approach was welcomed by Russell Hobby, general secretary of the NAHT headteachers' union.

"That sort of feedback is incredibly helpful, and it is very useful to see yourself and how you work through someone else's eyes," he said. "It would be important for the feedback to be done anonymously, so it could be full and frank. The head should then have a coach alongside them to help them work through what they have learned.

"Senior executives in the private sector will have gone through this sort of training many times in their careers and I think it is time it should be resurrected for heads."

Read the full report at www.suttontrust.comresearcharchivedeveloping-teachers

Got what it takes?

Top 10 key qualities for effective school leadership:

1. Admitting mistakes

2. Offering trust

3. Active listening

4. Affirmation (praising thanking staff)

5. Decision-making

6. Visibility

7. Demeanour

8. Coaching and mentoring

9. Care and concern

10. Confidentiality

Source: Dr Paul Browning, headmaster of St Paul's School, Queensland, Australia

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