Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

System overload

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The expectations of headship have become too big for one person, says ASCL member and headteacher Geoff Barton. But, he argues, a new model of executive headship shouldn't leave others to pick up the pieces.

Something is going to have to give. Surely I'm not alone in feeling this more and more, as I'm asked to join another working party, or attend an extended schools or 14-19 curriculum meeting, or be involved in more consultation on Every Child Matters.

Something is going to have to give.

In the past, the headteacher's role could be summed up rather quaintly. It was to run the school. What an old-fangled idea that now seems.

These days, a head could make a whole career out of attending working parties, partnerships, federations, locality groups, extended schools meetings; being deployed for consultation and as a school improvement partner.

In the process, he or she could set barely a foot within the school grounds. It can feel as if the job of running the school has slithered way down the priority list.

There are a number of problems with this. One is that whilst the expectations on headteachers might have changed, the perception of the punters hasn't.

Parents and pupils still want to see the reassuring, old-fangled stuff. However much heads might flatter themselves with chief executive-style titles and strategy-heavy job descriptions, they still expect to see the head ensuring that the site is free of litter and happily managing the lunch queue.

Schools ignore this at their peril. Because in the eyes of many people, such things matter a lot.

Of the various headteachers I have worked with, those who have commanded the most respect have shown that they can cut it in the classroom, in the assembly hall, in the corridors. They had credibility. They passed the 'wet Thursday lunchtime in November' test.

But being able to manage a lunch queue, get pupils picking up litter, be visible in assemblies, read and comment on hundreds of reports - all of these are the stuff of the job as it was.

On to them has been added a heavy slice of added expectations, including interpreting data, self-evaluation, overseeing budgets, restructuring staffing models and - most significantly - working with a range of new partners, many of them from beyond the traditional territories of education.

It's hard to see how heads will manage to sustain both roles - the day-to-day role that creates credibility and the more strategic purpose that is essential if we are to see the whole system improve.

And it may actually be counterproductive. It is common knowledge that our profession faces a crisis in top-level leadership, coming to a head in 2008 when a generation of school leaders will move to the calmer pastures of retirement, French gites or SIP-dom.

Already 36 per cent of secondary headships have to be re-advertised, and that figure is likely to increase if new recruits to the profession see the role of headship as punishingly undoable, as setting people up for inevitable failure.

We run the risk of heads trying to do a bit of everything and doing too much of it badly. We therefore owe it to our profession to redefine the boundaries of headship and to raise the status of other leadership roles.

It shouldn't necessarily need to come down to having one role which is purely about strategy and another which deals with the mundane. That strikes me as simplistic.

A forward-thinking chair of governors once told me that he saw the headteacher's role as looking outside the school at partnerships and links; whilst the deputies looked inwards on standards and developments.

Perhaps that is a template for developing leadership roles, with the school as the anchor point in both roles.

A deputy by any other name

What is clear is that in redefining the role of headteacher, we will also need to consider changing labels, shifting the very language of leadership.

Whatever Shakespeare might say about a rose being sweet by any other name, the fact is that labels count, and not least in the eyes of parents, pupils and governors.

Tell me that I'll be smelling a rose and my expectations are quite different from the prospect of sniffing a dandelion. Language matters. It shapes our thought processes.

And perhaps one of our first linguistic difficulties is with the title 'deputy headteacher'. Too often it can seem that deputies' role is to gather up the crumbs off the master or mistress's table. They get to do the bits that the head doesn't like.

There's also sometimes a feeling - in the eyes of staff, parents and pupils - that a deputy is, by definition, a stand-in, a kind of stunt double.

Essential as it is to have someone who deputises in the case of absence, it may be that the nomenclature should change, that we should dispense with the term 'deputy', at least for the key person who will take on the day-to-day watching brief on the quality of the school experience whilst the head gives more (but not total, I would suggest) attention to partnership working.

Some schools have done this based on the management structure of the restaurant business. Thus you have the head chef who does the day-to-day cooking that brings in the cash. The executive chef - the Gordons, Marcos and Jamies - links the restaurants together, ensures the quality, publicises and promotes.

Translated to schools, this may mean having a head of school or associate head or even headteacher (how quaint) whose role is to run the place.

The role shouldn't simply be the equivalent of a car ferry's stabilisers that allows the vessel to sit calmly however choppy the waters. It isn't a treading water role, idling in dock whilst the executive head is powering glamorously around the bay.

It should be a role which allows and encourages innovation and development, and autonomy within an agreed overall strategy. Indeed, this sense of development will be essential if the school culture is to stay healthy.

It is headship as we knew it, requiring someone with resilience, presence and an ability to take decisions without worrying too much. It isn't simply doing the messy bits of the job - exclusions, calming irate parents, being on endless duty, and so on. It should be high-profile, visible and attractive.

Keeping credibility

I would suggest that the executive headship role also needs to retain elements of the day-to-day work. These people can't simply swan in and out, ignoring the student in trainers in the corridor.

Heads reinforce their credibility through attention to details, and this role needs therefore to have built-in reminders of the executive headteacher's ability to 'cut it' around school: taking periodic assemblies, being in the staffroom and - crucially - visiting lessons.

Nevertheless, ambitions for systematic improvement across schools, rather than the increasingly clapped-out model of competition, demands linking schools and other organisations together, and this needs proper time given to it.

It also feels like an increasingly grown-up approach to school improvement that the league table system was never designed for.

However, with any such changes in role also comes a need to explain the changes. It needs parents, pupils, staff and governors to understand the rationale.

For staff, it also means that this model of leadership should be developed much earlier than when staff begin to contemplate headship.

This means showing all staff the importance of partnership work, emphasising that being, for example, an effective subject leader should involve making links with colleagues in other schools.

More important, in an age of considerable curriculum flux, it should mean making links with people in business and other public services. How will we ever really offer successful work-related learning for students if we aren't frequently engaging with people in a range of businesses?

What this suggests is that the roots of the executive headteacher role - the person looking out from the school across a series of community partners - should be modelled by other leadership posts within the school.

Middle managers - whether subject leaders, heads of year and, of course, advanced skills teachers - should see partnership working as integral and non-negotiable.

Convincing the punters

Just as crucial is the need for parents, pupils and governors to recognise the changing landscape of headship. They need to see that heads are beginning to work much more collaboratively, between phases and across some of the old competitive school boundaries of the past.

Seeing the executive head representing other schools, being associated with successes across a partnership, being explicit in flagging up a new way of working - these are important for the local community to notice.

It might mean generating press coverage of work done between schools, of shared projects, of groups of heads shown attending a launch meeting of a new joint venture. Our websites, newsletters and even our headed notepaper should signal the changed roles.

This new phase of school leadership is going to need a new approach. Something will have to give.

But it is essential that staff, pupils and parents understand the rationale for such changes, and see what's in it for themselves and how it fulfils an important responsibility to the wider community.

Geoff Barton is Head of King Edward VI School in Suffolk.

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