As leaders, we like to think that we delegate leadership responsibility to our staff. We recognise that this is important in developing teachers and in having more than a single eye (and brain) concentrated on school affairs. And yet, in my experience, very rarely do leaders truly delegate responsibility.
An authentically distributed leadership model in schools should empower all staff to see themselves as leaders. This is not possible in the traditionally hierarchical leadership model used in schools. Teachers are too often isolated in the classroom and are rarely given responsibility for making decisions about the core activities of teaching and learning. Decisions are instead filtered down through the leadership structure. It’s not all coming from the head, but it’s still coming from “above”; the teacher has little, if any, control.
The result is that teachers often don’t understand the reasons behind what they are asked to do, and more often they don’t see the sense in it. Hence, the strategy from on high fails.
We could get around this with better modelling. How many teachers, for example, bite their tongues after a lesson observation from a member of the senior management team, when what they really want to do is ask that person to kindly take their class and show them how to do it?
We can also properly distribute leadership to those in the best position and with the most appropriate skills. The first rule of distributed leadership must be that not only does every member of staff believe they are a leader, but they also realise they can lead and influence decision-making. The cook is quite rightly the leader in the kitchen; the midday team are play leaders in the playground; a teaching and learning assistant is a leader in the group he or she is working with. And teachers are the most important people in primary schools (apart from children) because they are classroom leaders and have the greatest day-to-day impact on children’s learning.
All these people need to be empowered to make informed decisions in the best interests of children. So, how do we enable an effective distributed leadership structure in schools?
One school, one goal
I don’t see myself as more important than any other member of staff in the school, and it’s not my job to tell others what to do. It’s my job to inspire and motivate people to believe that all members of staff have the same goals – goals that are concerned with the social, personal and academic learning of all children. People need to know that they are not doing something because the headteacher has told them to, but because everybody believes it’s the right thing to do in line with the collective vision of the school. The school ideals should be so vivid and strong that every person could effectively make leadership decisions.
Inspire teachers to innovate
If you truly want staff to lead, they need to be given the opportunity to do all the things great leaders do. Great leaders take risks, they innovate, they seek to improve and make changes to their practice. When school leaders give leadership responsibilities, are they really encouraging teachers to do these things? Or is it more a case of ensuring that the boxes have been ticked in preparation for Ofsted?
If you are going to give staff leadership responsibilities, you will stifle learning if you constantly monitor their work. Teachers need to feel able to make decisions when leading their year groups or subjects, and this has to happen in a culture of high trust as well as high accountability. This builds social capital and confidence among staff.
No single leader in a school, including the headteacher, should ever feel that they have sole responsibility. All decisions should be made collaboratively and based upon authentic professional dialogue. Decisions made by leaders should be based on the effective co-construction of knowledge about where the school is at and the changes that need to be made to move the school on. Informal and formal professional dialogue, a coaching culture and peer learning will ensure that all staff have opportunities to take risks, make mistakes and, crucially, learn. This will allow the development of a collaborative learning culture that welcomes challenge and cultivates a positive can-do attitude within the institution.
It’s not just teaching staff
Many of the responsibilities held by senior leaders in schools – for example, timetabling, organisation of cover, data collection and premises – should be handed to a highly skilled office team. This allows all leaders within this distributed model to focus on the core business of teaching and learning. And, within this model, all teaching staff have to teach, including the headteacher.
Kulvarn Atwal is headteacher of Highlands Primary School in East London
This video from Teachers TV explores how new leadership ideas and structures have turned around struggling schools.
Read this guide to distributed leadership in education.