However brilliant heads might be, they can prosper by sharing responsibility, say experts. Judith Judd finds out that old command and control structures are no longer appropriate
Distributed leadership may be one of the most fashionable ideas in education, but what exactly is it? Does it mean, as some teacher unions fear, that hard-pressed headteachers have carte blanche to dump more and more tasks on their staff?
Is it like old-fashioned, hierarchical delegation that gives people a job to do without making them accountable for the consequences? Or is it, as the official line has it, the key to freeing heads and teachers to concentrate on improving teaching?
Heads trying to make it work have no difficulty devising a definition. Diane Wilson, head of Great Waltham Primary in Essex for the past four years, says: "It's about a school's ethos and culture, not about asking someone to do the summer show. Delegation is dictating and saying you will do this. This is about negotiating and working to people's strengths."
A secondary colleague, Fiona Hammans, head of Banbury School in Oxfordshire, says: "It's about unlocking staff potential. It's an important part of staff welfare. If you give people the chance to try things, they will feel better about the place they work."
The starting point, however, may be the need to lighten the head's load. "However brilliant the head is, they can't do everything," says Dr Hammans.
A debate is in progress about what a head should and shouldn't do. In its advice to the School Teachers' Review Body, the National College for School Leadership said heads should be responsible for the care and welfare of staff and pupils and the standards of teaching and learning.
Toby Salt, the college's strategic director, has experience of the difficulties in deciding priorities. He moved from the headship of a single school to be the executive head of a federation. Did he need to take every assembly? He decided not, but he did carry on greeting parents at the gates and doing bus and lunch duty.
"Parents shouldn't be barging into your office to say their son has lost a lunch box," he says.
"I decided I needed to carry on doing child protection referral and capability issues for teachers, but I told the staff I didn't want to get involved in deciding the colour of the PE kit."
Business managers are taking on jobs such as budgeting and negotiating contracts, traditionally done by heads. All bar 3 per cent of secondaries have a business manager, usually on the leadership team, but only 60 per cent of primaries do. And only 13 per cent of these are part of the leadership team.
Research by McKinsey shows that a high-level business manager can save up to a third of a head's time and can mean savings of 5 per cent of the school budget.
Great Waltham Primary has only 144 pupils but Mrs Wilson has no doubt about the value of Margaret Richards, its business manager.
"When I was doing the NPQH, one person on the course had just taken on a headship. She said she didn't realise that it was going to take hours of telephoning, trying to find someone to mend the gutters. I didn't want to spend my time doing that," says Mrs Wilson.
Yet some heads do not want to let go of responsibilities, she says. Other heads' jaws drop when they discover that her business manager is part of the leadership team.
"They cannot see the advantage of having someone there who knows about the finances," she says.
Distributed leadership is not just about appointing a business manager, or saving time or money, but about involving staff every day in a wide variety of decisions.
Robert Hill, the former Downing Street adviser and author of several books about school management, says: "There's a recognition that you have to develop leadership qualities at different levels, for strategy, for the curriculum and for support services. All these jobs need to operate in a co-ordinated way."
Schools are not alone in looking for new styles of leadership. Richard Kemp, director of executive development programmes at Henley Management College in Oxfordshire, says: "Lots of organisations are realising that the old command and control structures are no longer as appropriate as they were.
"They ask what people need to know to make decisions, because you can't keep referring everything up the chain. We are in a much more collaborative environment.
"People sometimes come to us with the idea of being a hero leader and we send them back so that they listen more. Business is interested in it because the more you listen, the more successful you are."
Distributed leadership is not about heads running away and hiding, Mr Salt says. "We have to have somewhere for the buck to stop."
As Dr Hammans puts it: "If it is something very big, it can't be democratic because my name is on the Ofsted report."
Robert Hill says schools need a strong leader with a clear strategy. He says Sir Alan Steer, of Seven Kings High in Redbridge, north-east London, and chair of the Government's behaviour review, is a good example of a head "whose personality shines out but who has a very enabling model of leadership".
What is the evidence that distributed leadership pays educational dividends? So far, not much. But Mr Hill says leadership teams in schools that are improving spend more time coaching and mentoring than those in schools that are not.
Perhaps, says Mr Salt, it is simply obvious that if teachers and heads concentrate on teaching, and heads develop teachers' strengths, schools will improve.
`Staff only turn up if they feel valued'
Fiona Hammans, principal of Banbury School, a 1,700-pupil comprehensive in Oxfordshire, says that her staff structure looks "ridiculously hierarchical" on paper.
"That is partly to do with performance management," she said. "It's also to do with hanging on to your staff. Hierarchy enables people to get promotion so that they don't leave." For example, there are four levels of teaching assistants directly supporting the curriculum at different grades and on different pay.
The principal and senior leadership team set overall performance outcomes and priorities. This year the aim is to get as many pupils as possible through English and maths GCSE. "We tell people we don't mind how they do it as long as they get results," says Dr Hammans. "We also set softer outcomes.
"People will only turn up if they feel valued. We measure this by reduced staff absence and reduced turnover." Leaders of smaller groups decide their own priorities. For example, a subject group might aim for more pupils getting A grades.
The school has recently changed to a two-year key stage 3 and three years for KS4.
"If we want to make a change, we don't put senior leaders in charge of the working group," says Dr Hammans. "We will probably shape the priority but we won't dictate the outcome. We will ask the group to come up with recommendations.
"You have to find a way of making sure people's ideas come through."
`Margaret saves us both time and money'
Great Waltham Primary
Margaret Richards is the full-time business manager at Great Waltham Primary, a 144-pupil school near Chelmsford in Essex. She is the point of contact for parents on many issues.
She deals with lost lunch boxes or coats and may conduct a preliminary investigation if a parent has a problem about a child. She writes letters about school journeys, dinner money and medical matters. She manages the caretaker, office staff and midday supervisors and her expertise is loaned to six other schools informally.
Diane Wilson, the head, above right with Mrs Richards, says she saves her time and the school money. For example, Mrs Richards found ways of the toilets to flush with less water.
But, for Mrs Wilson, distributed leadership is not just about saving time or money; it is about collective problem-solving to improve learning.
"A lot of things are done by discussion," she says. "Planning, preparation and assessment time for everyone was on Wednesdays, and we got in outside help. It didn't work as the children couldn't concentrate in the afternoon. Now we have one person who takes IT and PE, rotating around the classes. And the teachers have half a day off separately."
The staff changed the way they teach mental maths by dividing children into smaller groups according to ability. Children are much more confident, she says.