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Visionary role of schools puts heads on the block

They do things differently in Knowsley. Already, some secondaries have abandoned traditional lessons to concentrate on boosting pupils' skills. Now they're looking at alternative ways to lead schools: heads could be replaced by executives. William Stewart reports.In the not too distant future, secondary headteachers with an education background could be an endangered species in Knowsley.

This idea from Damian Allen, the children's services director, would seem quite shocking until you consider the track record of the local authority. Since 1999, officials running education in this deprived corner of Merseyside have made a point of doing things differently.

This is the council that sees itself as an "innovation zone and a test bed for wider government urban policy". It is already abolishing secondary schools and, in some cases, traditional lessons such as history, in name at least. Now the concept of the headteacher is getting the Knowsley treatment.

The authority has proposed three leadership models for the seven learning centres that will replace its 11 secondary schools in new buildings from 2009. None involves the traditional idea of making a qualified teacher the leader.

It is typical of the unconventional thinking that Knowsley - which six years ago was rooted to the bottom of the secondary league tables - has repeatedly adopted in a bid to raise standards quickly.

Back then Steve Munby, now chief executive of the National College for School Leadership, was Knowsley's education director. He presided over what was called a "mind-based learning" programme which involved carrying out an audit of pupils' learning styles.

Uninhibited by a warning from David Miliband, then schools minister, that personalised learning was not about a "crude reductionism to specific learner types", the authority revealed that the majority of pupils were kinaesthetic learners who learnt best through physical activity.

Mr Allen has continued in a similarly innovative vein work with schools. Or, rather, learning centres.

"The learning will look and feel very different because the building has been designed to facilitate more democratised space," he says. Or, if you prefer: "Do you see the locus of innovation as the school, as an institution, or do you see the learning centre as part of a topology of service delivery in a new landscape?"

It is that kind of buzzy language that may have led a BBC radio presenter to accuse him of peddling "outmoded 1970s fads".

Mr Allen, who tells the story himself, is unrepentant. "I thought it was extremely unhelpful because the 1970s was a classic era, particularly for music," he jokes.

His serious response is: "Every idea has its day and most of them come round again."

For the learning centres, that means the buildings are designed around the kind of project-based curriculum being developed in Knowsley schools such as Bowring Community Sports College in Huyton, where lessons in humanities have been rebranded as "disasters and dilemmas" and the expressive arts as "dreams".

In this skills-based approach, pupils are often asked to go and work on their own projects. So the new buildings will provide break-out areas for them to do so, away from formal classrooms.

Such ideas may seem wacky, but they are being backed by some very influential organisations. The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority is working with Bowring College on how to assess skills. And Microsoft, the international software giant, has not only picked it as one of its 12 global innovative schools, but is also heavily involved in the pound;150 million Building Schools for the Future project to build the seven learning centres in Knowsley.

When The TES asked Ralph Young, Microsoft's vice president in charge of its worldwide public sector programme, what impressed him most about British education, he immediately pointed to the Knowsley scheme.

"The whole notion of transforming a vision of a school from being just a physical structure to a community centre that should be open to all is a great one," he said.

And that is the other reason the new learning centres will not be called schools: because they will provide a wider function than educating 11- to 18-year-olds.

Mr Allen argues they are not just extended schools either because the extra services, such as adult learning and health and social services, will be fully integrated and change the way the centre is run, rather than be "bolt-ons" to a school.

As such, the authority thought a completely different model of leadership might be more appropriate so it commissioned Manchester University's Centre for Educational Leadership, working with heads and deputies, to devise one. Its findings, which set out three variants of headship, come after two years of research, including looking at the NHS and the private sector.

The first model sees the traditional head replaced by a team of five co-leaders, the second by an executive leader from a non-education background. Trying to understand the third childparentadvocate consumer model can be "like knitting fog", the authority admits. It apparently places the "consumer" - the child and their parent or advocate - in a "pivotal" role where they are "truly responsible" for their own learning.

Would the children be in charge, then? "No!" says Mr Allen. "That would be anarchy." Adults remain at the helm with leadership divided up around the five goals of Every Child Matters: be healthy, stay safe, enjoy and achieve, make a poisitive contribution and achieve economic well-being. Exactly what this means in practice remains unclear.

"It is radical," Mr Allen admits, "and would be a bit difficult to put in place immediately."

So, what do headteachers make of the leadership structures that could deprive them of their jobs?

Madeleine Cotson, head of Bowring College, is diplomatic. "They are interesting ideas and I certainly think they are worth looking into. But it would be a developmental process. You can't just impose it and expect it to happen. At the moment they are a piece of research we are just looking at."

Knowsley's publicity material reveals other reservations among heads, admitting the co-leadership model would mean a "significant cultural change" for them. As for the managerial model, heads apparently argue: "The core purpose of a learning centre is learning and therefore those with ultimate responsibility should be educationalists."

Nationally, there was a similar lack of enthusiasm earlier this year when the Government raised the possibility of allowing professionals not qualified as teachers to lead schools. The Association of School and College Leaders did accept that a suitably qualified manager with previous experience in education could take on leadership of a school, but the National Union of Teachers said there was "near unanimity" among heads that they should have classroom experience and the National Association of Head Teachers took a similar view.

Knowsley is not likely to risk offending the unions by appointing a generalist as a school leader just yet. Mrs Cotson has already been appointed head of one of the seven new learning centres and trained heads will be in charge of four others. The chances of the remaining two learning centres being led by generalists may be limited for other reasons. First, they will not be appointed on the basis of the three variant leadership models already discussed, but on a yet to be revealed blend of all three.

The TES understands this could allow some section of one learning centre to be led by a person based in another, or indeed from a different agency delivering children's services. For example, if a learning centre were to specialise in PE and sports, then why not make the most of its expertise by giving the member of the senior management team responsible for the specialism strategic control over the direction of sport in other learning centres, particularly if they are all part of the same federation. It is likely that the final blended model will provide scope for the person in overall charge to be a traditional head.

The second reason is that it will be for the governing bodies, rather than Knowsley Council, to appoint the heads and they may choose to use a more traditional model.

Mr Allen says that for the time being the emphasis in the learning centres will be on improving exam results, which is why initial appointments may well be for heads with educational backgrounds.

"But," he adds, "that is not to say that in the not very distant future the governors may want a different format. The potential for that to happen has been sown by this (research) work.

"Our role is to provide the template of potential."


The three models of learning centre leadership that Knowsley is pioneering

Managerial model

- An "executive leader of learning" in overall control of the learning centre with a generalist, non-educationist background.

- Beneath that person would be five leaders covering the five roles laid out in the co-leadership model (see right).

Childparentadvocate consumer model

- Leadership is divided along the five goals of the Every Child Matters agenda: being healthy, staying safe, enjoying and achieving, achieving economic well-being and making a positive contribution.

- Students would be responsible for their own learning, with guidance and support from a parent or advocate group.

Professional co-leadership model

- Management would be split equally between five co-leaders with no one in overall control.

- There would be leaders of secondary education, of the learning centre's specialism - sport, for example - of business and management services and community learning, with an excellent or advanced skills teacher as the fifth co-leader.

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