Three steps to a good head

Anne Pearson

It has been claimed that headteachers are leaving schools in droves, with excessive pressure at work the culprit. And few deputes appear to relish picking up the mantle.

This is something which desperately needs to be addressed, for if headship has become such an undesirable post, then something is fundamentally wrong with how new heads are attracted to the job, and how current heads are supported.

One of the biggest leaps into any senior management role is that of ultimate accountability, and the "not enough hours in the day" syndrome. Many heads identify with reports of working from 7am-10pm in the week and for considerable chunks at the weekend.

Clearly, education authorities should ensure that their senior executives (as a director of education referred to his headteachers) are appropriately challenged and supported. But if real change is to be achieved, heads themselves have a role to play. They may perceive they are expected to be tireless and in possession of a superhuman capacity for work, but changing their working practices - using the talent and leadership strength in their schools - would deliver immediate benefits.

While it may be true that the buck stops with heads, to take sole responsibility for every task and outcome is counter-productive for them, as well as their schools. As in any organisation, the most effective form of leadership is one which not only delegates tasks to the right people, but creates clear accountability for their delivery.

Sharing accountabilities, where individual staff accept responsibility for a particular task, would ease the burden. And fewer senior teachers would be exposed to the kind of work which falls under the head's remit.

Heads are often appointed on the basis that they were fantastic classroom teachers, which isn't the same as being a fantastic leader. Private companies have cottoned on to this, and many have good processes for spotting leadership potential among employees.

They identify good leadership behaviours and develop future leaders against these benchmarks. The same approach is needed in schools, but what exactly is expected of a good head needs further clarity. For example, the Standard for Headship says that "headteachers model their commitment to learning for life as the school's 'leading learner'". More helpful would be a description of the behaviours and outcomes which would satisfy this.

Those with leadership potential should be exposed to challenges and opportunities slightly beyond their day jobs, accompanied by the necessary resources and support, to prepare them for leading a school.

This works on three counts. It provides a stream of future leaders with relevant experience who shouldn't feel as though they've been thrown in at the deep end; it offers career progression and motivation for those coming up through the ranks more quickly than would otherwise be possible; and, by giving teachers greater understanding and experience of the responsibilities of headship, it increases the likelihood they will believe they can and should do it.

Teaching will then, truly, become a lifelong career.

Anne Pearson works with the Hay Group management consultancy and is a former primary head in Scotland.

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Anne Pearson

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