According to deputy prime minister Nick Clegg, the government is to create a “champions league” (their phrase) of headteachers and deputies ready to take over failing schools in deprived areas. It will, they tell us, “be like bringing in Sir Alex Ferguson to turn Swindon Town into Manchester United”.
Inept and inappropriate footballing analogies apart (did I hear you mention Clough at Leeds United?) and regardless of how the scheme is dressed up and presented, we have been here before. Twitter is full of the inevitable references to the Blair/Blunkett “superheads” of the late 1990s.
The trouble with applying high-profile political “quick fixes” for problems that are actually diverse and complicated is that they expose the heads and the schools to even more pressure.
Critics watch closely for the first sign of failure, while politicians are impatient for quick and visible evidence of success – smart youngsters and smiling school leaders who can be lined up alongside ministers for photo-opportunities.
Between them, they can push heads into short-term high-profile blitzkrieg actions guaranteed to cause resentment, and alienate the very colleagues, students and parents whose support is essential for success.
However, politics apart, let’s not deny the principle that in any field of endeavour, the key to success lies in effective leadership. As they say, “It starts at the top”, and in the right circumstances a new head really can make a difference. I have met and written about many successful “turnaround” headteachers who came to their posts through the conventional process of application and interview.
None of them displayed what is assumed, perhaps mistakenly, to be the stereotypical “superhead” attitude. What I saw was humility, unconditional respect for students and staff, and deep awareness of what is an awesome responsibility. Above all, I observed a shared determination not to be pushed into hasty decisions. The real strength of these leaders lay in moving methodically, at a well-judged pace, towards a shared vision to which everyone was signed up.
Two people, in particular, come to mind. Both arrived in very troubled inner city schools with a clear brief for all-round improvement – attainment, behaviour, attendance.
Each found the early months very slow and difficult. One confessed that at the end of her second term she could see no real daylight, and told the authority’s chief education officer that she was thinking of resigning. He responded by sitting down with her and listing each of the many areas where she had made measurable progress. And, of course, these small gains gathered momentum and the school went on to become a centre of excellence and social cohesion in a very diverse and sometimes violent area.
The other head – self-effacing, quietly spoken – had also transformed a failing school. Under his guidance, key performance figures rose dramatically, staff turnover declined to normal levels, and relations with the local community were transformed.
So how was it done? Did he march into his first assembly, tell the students that lazy days were over and embark on mass suspensions?
Not a bit of it. He did something much braver than that. He was the fourth head in five years, and he knew that each one of them had arrived with a no-nonsense plan of action. Making yet another missionary statement would have been a sure-fire way of feeding the cynicism of the very people he needed at his side. So he spent the whole of his first term questioning, listening and observing. It was a level of apparent detachment that needed its own sort of courage, because within and beyond the school there was impatience for change.
For both of these heads, change came quite slowly. But when it inevitably did begin to take off, it was secure and sustainable, based on deep understanding of each school, its people, and their problems, needs and expectations.
So, yes, for some schools, a new leader is the answer. My two examples, though, and numerous others, convince me that there are some important caveats.
One is that my two example heads were there because they wanted to be. That’s crucial. Staff and students in a troubled school need to feel that their new head has chosen them and is there for the long haul, ready to listen and committed to helping them. Heads have told me of being approached by children saying anxiously: “Are you staying, Miss?”
At the same time – and this is the vital bit – whoever is out there watching for results, whether government, academy trust, local authority or whatever, must recognise that the head needs time, understanding and support – at the human level as well the professional.
Finally, turning the argument on its head, I guess most professionals realise what the government apparently does not, which is that the judgement, “this school needs better leadership” is not always the same as, “this school needs a new headteacher”.
This latest scheme will not be cheap, and I wonder whether, in at least some cases, the money would be better spent on good CPD, some extra staff, better trained governors, support for SEN and behaviour, and maybe a lick of paint. But I guess you’d need a good local authority to put all of that together.
Gerald Haigh was a teacher in primary, secondary, middle and special schools for 30 years, 11 of them in headship. He’s also served as a school governor and has published many articles and books on education.