The Golden Age – part 2

When I began teaching, Headship was like the end of a rainbow..out of reach. Partly because I had only begun teaching,  any thoughts towards becoming a Head would have been very odd considering I wasnt quite sure what was higher: a 2C or a 2A? (I actually had to ring my final school, placement mentor to find out). No, if at that stage in my career I had designs on Headship it would have been very worrying and I probably should have left the world of education there and then .  

Another reason however as to why Headship appeared to be an almost mythological state was because of the Head Teachers that were around. In my mind the Head Teachers back then were calossal. Mighty beasts that not only led their school but were the school.  I don’t want to use the word “Maverick”but these were big personalities who seemed untouchable. It was these men and women whose schools were like kingdoms.  When you heard about what this or that Head was doing in his or her school it was like listening to myths from another land. They were at once, to me, all knowing about education but only in their particular domain. I always felt that it would be impossible to become one of them…unless I killed a lion or wrestled a bear or bit the head off a snake in some weird local authority ritual.  

I later worked with one of these leaders at close hand and I was so relieved that they weren’t a disappointment. It was a tough school in a socio-economically depressed part of the city and floor standards were pretty much your wildest dreams.  (Don’t confuse that with staff low expectations however, as a pgce student once made the mistake of actually saying during a staff meeting.) This Head was, to my mind, the only possible person who could lead that school.  

Don’t get me wrong, there were some areas of weakness:  

1. Being able to actually teach (if he was taking your class you would come back at break to find that he had barely taken the register so preoccupied with trying to make the class laugh)
2. Staff communication at times was not brilliant; you found out, for example,  what year group you were teaching next year via letter in your pigeon hole after lunch on the last day… he would have left for the holidays at noon.
3. Zero respect for financial responsibility…each year came the depressing and soul destroying moment of ‘managing change’ which left many staff feeling devalued.
4. Writing a  SEF that was a complete (although at times amusing) work of fiction.  

But there were many, many, many things that cause those weaknesses to evaporate from my mind when I think about his overall contribution to that school community.  He loomed so large on the psyche of the community and committed so much of his life to bringing the community together and unifying them that he remains a significant influence on my own headship.  

I say that even though I believe his breed of Head Teacher is now extinct. For better or for worse schools are no longer led by Kings or Queens trying to protect their castle from the dragons that try to burn them down. (Wow, reading this back makes me think I should hold back on Game of thrones). These Heads have died out as Headship became more… professional?  

I don’t for one minute say that to try and take any level of professionalism away from the Heads of yesteryear… but the job itself has changed. For example:
I can’t employ, without interview, parents from the playground because they seem nice. I can’t have staff favourites (publicly) and offer them internal promotions. I can’t create an SDP priority based upon a personal indulgence. l can’t ignore what my local schools are doing or ignore their achievements over mine.  

Headship has become more transparently accountable and operating as a lone saviour is impossible. When people reminise about the “freedoms” of teaching back then (“I used to decide what my afternoon lessons would be whilst shaving”) or Headship (“Bugger the SIP, I Know what we’re doing”) l occasionally feel, not Sad, but a nostalgic longing for what I may have missed… a golden age? A time of freedoms and of a “my way or the highway” and assurity that you were right without question.

I mean will I inspire a generation of future Heads? Will they write a blog about me saying:  

1. By God he could write a SEF that cut to the chase.
2. He Knew Raise like the back of his hand.
3. I’ll say this for him, he always interviewed if there was a vacancy.
4. The man could budget reasonably well.. no one lost their job but we never managed to equip a fully working ICT suite.  

I’m certain they won’t. Even so, I hope I can be the Head for the community that I saw in that inner city school years ago. The cut corners, I can do without and the independence.  But the total commitment to a school is what drives me, and the changes that have come with the evolution of school improvement are, by me, welcomed. I embrace the partnerships we are creating with local schools in the real world and professional colleagues in the virtual world of twitter. I don’t want to be alone in this very public dashboard of educational judgements. We may not be living in a golden age of education and school leadership may have become more corporate and professionally minded but I wouldn’t necessarily change that.  

Where there are constraints, people will find freedoms through creativity.
When one school “fails” it will succeed through systems and partnerships.
Professionalism and rigid accountability are borne from a true desire to raise standards for all pupils.

As a school Leader I truly feel that we are tantalisingly close to forging education’s new golden age.

The Squeezed Middle

imagesTeachers become Head Teachers because they have the vision and capacity to enable a school to improve. It’s a simple role and if time slowed down and days were twice as long every Head Teacher worth their salt could achieve everything on their own. Sadly, the Earth’s position in relation to the sun refuses to change and every Head must rely on the team around them to get the job done and this is often where things go wrong-or more accurately, this is where things grind to a halt.

I once heard another Head Teacher say that the problem with the leadership within any organisation is that it runs the risk of being populated with people who have reached their zenith and who aren’t talented enough to progress any further in their career. This seems rather mean-spirited but there can be a grain of truth in it. For the purposes of this post let’s assume we are not talking about the good ones. To all those dedicated Phase Leaders and Assistant Heads reading this, I am not talking about you, you are great. I am talking about that other lot and you all know who I mean: The Middle Leaders or to put it more clearly those people that would actually refer to themselves as a Middle Leader.

Middle-Leadership. I hate that term. It sounds so un-aspiring .It may as well be Not-Quite -Leadership or A-Bit-Of-Leadership or I’ll-Run-One-Staff-Meeting-A-Year-In-Order-To-Justify-My-TLR-Leadership.  Leadership is not about being in the middle: if you want to lead you have to be out in front.  You have to be visible and model the right attitude and behaviour to everyone else at all times. This is often where Middle-Leaders fall short.

To those newly in post I can’t blame them. Many middle-leaders start off with a reluctance to put themselves out there as an example to others especially if they were promoted internally. It is very difficult to start as a member of staff, on the same level as everyone else, and then suddenly find yourself in a position where you get to tell your peers how to improve. If anything, it can make Friday evenings in the pub awkward.

‘Anyone fancy a drink?’

‘Yes please, mine’s a gin & tonic.’

‘Piss off; you said my display was crap.’

However, given the right coaching and with the right member of staff however, this can be addressed quite easily. They will quickly develop, move on and start leading effectively without upsetting their peers.

But what about those long-standing Middle Leaders, the ones that have been there for as long as you can remember?  Blissfully unaware that they are not mentioned in your SEF or are not invited to any serious SLT meeting. During performance management it becomes apparent that they have no desire to move forward in their career and while I do not judge people solely on their long term career expectations, they are so lacking in whole school perspective or desire to go above and beyond they end up becoming a significant drag on school improvement.

These members of staff have somehow managed to get on the post-threshold pay spine but when you ask them to run an assembly at short notice they come out in a rash and are speed-dialling the unions before you have time to check the conditions of their contract. When you ask if anyone could monitor the lunch hall because you’re short staffed they always manage to raise their hand just after the NQT jumps up and says they would love to do it. They are ‘comfortable’ and in the ever changing world of school improvement they are as effective as woolly gloves on an i-pad.

School improvement needs everyone to see the big picture and understand not only how being effective in their role will impact upon school improvement but how their role may evolve. Sadly, it is often the ‘secure and safe’ middle leaders who find this so difficult to achieve. They are uncomfortable working out of their well-established comfort zone and unwilling to shift their goal-posts. They are so used to judging their success using the narrowest of parameters that when they start to feel the squeeze, they buckle and their insecurity and ineffectiveness oozes out of them for all to see.

What do you do? Send them on another Middle-Leadership course? Coach them? Hope they leave? Most of the time you know it would be easier to cut them out of the loop entirely and leave school improvement to the professionals but this in turn would most likely cause resentment from everybody else. Whatever you choose, it is likely it will be a compromise between leaving them to quietly have no impact hoping no one notices and squeezing them so hard they split.

I saw a documentary about the American school system. One idea that intrigued me was their approach to staffing. Each year all the Head Teachers within each state would meet at a convention and they would take with them a list of all their least effective staff. In the American system any teacher can be relocated to any school within the state at any time. Bearing in mind some states are larger than the UK you can imagine the connotations this brings with it. The Head Teachers call this system ‘shuffling the shit’. Each Head hopes that they return from the visit with slightly better ineffective teachers than they went with. I’m not saying I approve of this system but I bet any Head reading this knows whose name they would take to that convention.

Maybe, with groups of schools working together as academy groups, this model may come into practice. Not to ‘shuffle the shit’ but to think how to really develop and deploy effective leadership across a group of schools or a city or even the country. Strong leaders could be shared, weaker leaders could be placed in less challenging areas or more challenging areas in order for them to develop at a more effective pace.  Schools would be working in real partnerships with staff harnessing their skills to impact not just a single school but a city-wide/country-wide cohort. (Obviously this system could be abused: teachers living in fear, heads abusing their power, staff members becoming black listed from working in a particular city…but let’s ignore that notion for now and let me dream.)

The fact is schools cannot succeed due to one lone Head Teacher doing everything. A school’s success lies in the culture of collective and visible leadership that is promoted and demonstrated. Middle Leaders should be out in front. Not every leader needs to aspire to be a Head but they should feel that they are developing the skills so that they could step up if required. If that sounds like your cup of tea then you will be an effective leader at any level. If that sounds unrealistic and not what you came into education for, please don’t apply for a job at my school. If you’re already in my school then you’re on my list!