One for the team

Is a sole leadership role is the perfect solution? Or is an extensive team is needed to lead a school to success?

We have lived through changing times in education. No change there, then. In fact, living with and through a constantly changing world of education is often cited as a reason to call a halt, quit and become a fisherman in Cornwall.

Oddly enough, even thinking of the above alternative to teaching/managing in schools brings me back round to the territory I wanted to explore for a moment: leadership. Jumping from a school to a fishing boat would just land you in another ‘unit’ with the same demands for a leader (a captain) and a staff (however many fishermen would be necessary for the job).

And it’s that question of ‘how many’ which is intriguing. In the olden days (sorry!) my first job was in a large college of further education. I had three bosses – head of English, head of arts/liberal studies and principal. They were, of course, all men – in those days women in FE taught in the catering department and seldom rose very high. In two years I never met the principal, in which regard I differed from a friend who later got a job in a big college of education, caused the principal to seek a divorce and married him in some triumph.

But I digress. It seems to me now that most schools, for instance, may have a head – which looks much like the role as it ever was – but they will also have a sometimes quite enormous team of people sharing the load. There are, for instance, deputy heads (I was one, that I understand) but even in my day there were growing demands for that job to be labelled, for instance, deputy head pastoral, or academic, as the case may be. In applications for headship, I was quite proud of my sole deputy status, although in reality the head herself bore the brunt of everything which happened in school. The deputy was an appointment in case of need if the head was indisposed.

Assistant heads, often attached to particular academic years or pastoral roles, are a new invention since my early days in classrooms. Their existence testifies to the recognition that schools are enormously busy places with serious and important aims and intentions for all their pupils, and that schools will also offer career-enhancing roles to staff who are interested and ambitious. That’s essential if there is to be any staff development.

Second qualifications – master’s or doctorate level – for experienced teaching staff have changed from the old education management courses to a new beast: education leadership. Recognition that one person cannot do it all has blossomed into the creation of leadership teams, and schools with distributed leadership. And experience of those helps you climb the promotion ladder.

It’s amazing how many role models we see in positions of high authority appearing to be solo players, when in fact they have at their disposal an extensive team ensuring that they can do the one job which is theirs

Of course, the smaller the school the less likely are the opportunities to build experience of leadership in advance of the big job. A colleague moved from a seven-year stint as head at a small school to a headship with one of our larger premier schools, and what did she find different, apart from sheer numbers? Enthusiasm. She said that in the small school an idea might occur round the table but no one wanted to try new things or make big changes because things were fine, weren’t they? There was, in fact, great resistance to change, a kind of comfortable conviction that all was well and don’t mess with it!

In the new large school, she said a mere murmur of an idea at a senior meeting would produce instant, enthusiastic offers from most people in the room to pursue the idea, report back, see what was possible and go for it. It sounded very like those classrooms where the keenest children bounce up and down, waving their hands to get the teacher’s attention, crying, ‘please miss! I can do that miss! Mi-iss! Please!’

She was very sure that she had a vibrant and constructive team around her, working for the good of her school as well as their own careers. She found it refreshing, luxurious, even.

“For the first time as a head,” she reported, “I felt as if I was not alone, and I didn’t have to do it all myself. And the school was the richer for the generation of lots of ideas, which were then followed up. The staff wanted experience of leading others and managing change and saw the school as their test ground.

“Everyone benefited and I stopped having nightmares about shouldering the whole lot myself.”

Team effort

But there are other worlds outside classrooms and beyond the gates, and we might wonder if other patterns of leadership or the pursuit of excellence might inform school practice.

It’s amazing how many role models we see in positions of high authority appearing to be solo players, when in fact they have at their disposal an extensive team ensuring that they can do the one job which is theirs. You would think, because that’s what it looks like, that a tennis player was a solo operator, but how big is the team which puts the player on the court?

I have done no specific research, but I have heard interviews in which leading players mention – a little casually, as in, ‘but of course, what did you expect?’ – their personal teams. They include a coach or two (perhaps one for serving, one for backhand – there are endless possibilities in this category), a medic or two and perhaps a surgeon, sports psychologist, personal trainer, physiotherapist, nutrition adviser, chef, secretary and public relations expert. Wow.

Wouldn’t you love the notion of a new head arriving in school with her/his own team? Their own deputy – ‘we’re a team, we really work well together, and it really helps to have someone the head trusts to make sure that the senior common room understands what she/he wants, and the head has a direct line to the staffroom again that she/he can trust’.

It’s just possible such an appointment might be considered risky, but hey, this is just thinking outside the box. And what about the head’s PA? A rottweiler guarding the inner sanctum – ‘She’s very experienced at spotting who/what will waste the head’s time, and very diplomatic, trust her with my life!’ A ‘clearer of the decks’ so the head can get on with the serious business.

How about a speech writer? I have thought heads should have one of those ever since I watched, on a train, a man whom I presumed to be a head with an assembly to do the next morning, making notes from what seemed to be a children’s book entitled An Assembly Every Day!

The speech writer is a somewhat frivolous thought, but deputy and PA are more seriously meant. Effectively, they are the interface between a new head and a well-established school, where there is often friction and misunderstanding – dangerous territory for the body of the school.

With a big enough team (bag carrier also?) the head might be able to cover her/his beat unencumbered – no handbag, no file, no papers. Obama-esque elegance and minimalistic, calm authority. ‘Nothing in my hands but trust me, I’ve got this.’

Now that’s leadership.

This article first appeared in IE-Today on 29 May 2019