Roy Blatchford observes that school leaders and political leaders may have much to teach one another.
The Americans and the French have recently elected leaders, and the UK and Germany are soon to elect their own.
Elected leaders are products of their particular times and cultures, not leaders for all times. Elected leaders sense the mood of their people and put themselves forward with visions of better times. They tell compelling stories, paint vivid pictures of the horizon and submit to the electorates. Political leaders thrive and suffer through social media. Success or failure at the ballot box is sudden and brutal. Democracy is bloody and messy.
Principals and headteachers perform similar high wire acts in their own rural, urban and semi-urban settings across the country. In many ways, they have manifestos with which to lead and are subject to the same pressures of success and failure. Headteachers may not face the ballot box, but the daily courts of students, parents and governors can be just as exhilarating and unforgiving.
We know so much today about the cocktail of highly effective schools: the virtuous combination of well qualified, skilled teachers motivated by clear, fair-minded and knowledgeable leadership – and everyone focused on students’ well-being and all around achievements.
That same fair-minded leadership is not afraid to challenge orthodoxies. It thrives confidently on accountability. Inspired and inspiring school leaders embrace entrepreneurial and innovate opportunities where there are evident gains for staff development and enhancing students’ experiences.
Let me take just four leading headteachers I have worked with and describe briefly how I see them. They share the leadership characteristics described above, yet each makes a virtue of his or her particular setting.
Julie* combines a smile and inner steel that few can match. Her personal appearance is a clear message to others, and the staff’s smart dress-code is evident to any visitor. Her leadership style is rooted in valuing and working through others, championing excellence where she sees it, rooting out mediocrity with equal vigour.
Experienced in rapid primary school improvement, she is a great believer in enabling teachers to observe each other, to co-teach, to come together in short, focused workshops to tweak classroom practice. Staff meetings explore best next-step marking or smart presentations on effective techniques in phonics or applied mathematics.
Julie ‘catches staff at their best’, with postcards in pigeon holes that note a teacher’s action which has made a difference to a child. She takes photos of pupils at work, supported by a teaching assistant who is accelerating learning, and posts the photos on the school website. When she is working beyond the school she takes her teachers with her so they can share their best practice with a wider audience. She invites other heads to visit and see the school’s achievements.
Andrew is executive head of two large primary schools. He is a maverick intellectual with a passion for primary education. He relishes taking children into ways of thinking and doing which surprise them. He challenges orthodoxies.
His schools achieve outstanding academic results alongside memorable engagement for pupils with visiting musicians, scientists, artists, playwrights and mathematicians. He makes rules to break them, creating enquiring, confident and independent learners, ready to take on the world at 11+. The inclusion work of the school is notable.
This ethos of colourful intellectual enquiry has not come about by chance. Andrew gathers around him colleagues who push boundaries with children’s learning, rooted in their own fields of expertise. He visits any teachers he appoints in their current workplace; he is looking for can-do people who will bring an energy, spark and perhaps a non-teaching background to the school. He spends a lot of time creating the team spirit, formally and informally.
Nicola is an ardent advocate of single-sex education. She has a singular vision about the potency of comprehensive education in inner cities. She is a sterling critic of what she sees as an inspection regime which lets data get in the way of overall judgements about young people whose achievements against all odds are outstanding, but are not judged as such. She is as committed to the high flyer from a favoured background as she is to searching out the potential of a looked-after child.
Her annual review cycle, accompanying documentation and associated meetings with staff and governors follow a well trodden path. Each September, with a candid external eye in tow, she personally meets each head of faculty to review examination results. Each head of faculty produces an analytical report to a given format. The dialogue is warm and sharp, the head commending successes and peeling back disappointments with equal energy.
Nicola is a wise listener, takes advice from external consultants and senior colleagues, then backs her convictions. Governors trust and engage well with her strategic lead. To watch her at work balancing the headteacher’s proverbial spinning plates is to appreciate the relentlessness of the role, its potential loneliness, and the resilience required for contemporary headship.
Luke enjoyed a successful career in the aviation industry prior to becoming a Future Leader and, within a short period, head of what he affectionately calls a ‘bump to 16′ academy: on site there is a Children’s Centre, primary and secondary school, and a resource base for pupils with severe learning difficulties. He brings fresh, divergent thinking to a campus that has been steeped in educational failure, neglect and low self-esteem. Staff warm to his softly spoken manner and off-beat style of asking questions.
Rooted in his background outside the teaching profession, he has established with all staff that they need to be outward-facing, following years of inward-facing, cosy and complacent practice. His starting point has been to enable colleagues who have never visited outstanding practice to do just that, establishing a budget with governors to fund a ‘visits entitlement’ for staff.
Luke knows that transforming chronic under-achievement amongst pupils and challenging tired attitudes amongst staff is not a quick-fix. He has introduced day reviews of practice, led by heads of department paired up with counterparts in the same subject from a nearby secondary school. Heads of maths, science, the arts and English have reviewed each other’s practices, identifying what works well and what needs to change.
Mutual challenge in a climate of mutual respect is the underpinning theme of this head’s school improvement journey. He’s not there yet, but he’s getting there.
I wonder, of course, what these four good colleagues might be able to teach current and future political leaders!
(*Names have been changed. Further accounts of 24 successful headteachers can be found in ‘The Practical Guide’ mentioned below.)
Roy Blatchford CBE is founding director of the National Education Trust. He is author of ‘The Restless School’ and ‘A Practical Guide: National Standards of Excellence for Headteachers’, published by John Catt.