Developing distributed leadership

Written by: Colin McLean | Published:
Image: iStock

Creating a culture of shared school leadership can help to create success in the most challenging circumstances. Colin McLean speaks to Drew Povey of Harrop Fold School

The idea of school leadership being owned by the single figure of the all-powerful headteacher is an old-fashioned notion.

Today’s heads are more likely than ever before to take a shared approach to leadership, empowering their senior and middle leaders – and all staff – to play an active role in developing the school’s leadership vision and taking the reins of day-to-day leadership matters.

That’s certainly the case at Harrop Fold School in Salford. At the helm is headteacher Drew Povey – still only 38 – who has helped the school overcome a difficult past and build an inspiring culture which is fostering an impressive track record of success.

“Our school has a very dramatic past,” explained Mr Povey. “At one stage we were regarded as one of the worst in the country. We were also carrying a very large budget deficit, the result of a PFI contract and compounded by the economic downturn of 2008. We managed to draw level in 2010 despite being told that it was not possible by various budget taskforces. We had to reduce our workforce but at the same time standards continued to rise.”

Key to this success story has been the creation of a solid leadership culture that encourages colleagues to take the lead on deciding the school’s vision and day to day leadership priorities.

So what are the basic principles underpinning the approach at Harrop Fold?

People not processes

Base your organisation on people, not processes and performance: “We made a conscious decision not to be a management based organisation – founded on systems, processes and direction – and instead become one based on leadership and characterised by a focus on people, vision and getting people on board, rather than directing them.

“This approach shouldn’t be the preserve of the leader – it’s about your leadership team and your staff. They need to be given permission to think differently. This approach has had other benefits for our school – as well as rising standards we have a very low staff turnover.”

Craft a vision together

“You have to think from the perspective of your staff: if someone imposes on you a vision and a core purpose that you are expected to contribute to and work towards that is not motivating. Our leaders help to create the core purpose but we ask the staff what they think about it and to contribute so that it is a genuinely shared vision.

“We held a visioning day devoted to this question. We asked questions such as why do we turn up every day? It might be aspirations for our students, making a difference or being the centre of our community. The important thing is that this is genuine and that it is shared.”

Leaders practising leadership

“You can go into any successful business and ask the person running that business what they think their greatest asset is. They will usually say that it is their people. But do you think the people actually know that they are that business’ greatest asset? Often it’s not the case. It is much better if a leader genuinely asks their staff where they think their organisation is and what should be done to move it in the right direction.

“It’s not about just setting up staff consultation groups – it’s asking people about where they think the school needs to go and inviting them to submit their ideas. In my headteacher briefing I don’t tell people what to do, I ask them what they as a team want to do. You could say that we “sweat our main asset”, which is our people.

“We’ve adopted a flat leadership structure which works well for us. We have a team approach to leadership – we have leaders in charge of teaching and leadership and outcomes, progress, internal and external community, staffing, HR and finance, and culture and work. I sit alongside rather than above them.

“It’s not an approach that will work for everyone but it is important that you look at your leadership structure to ensure that it meets your school’s needs and reflects your culture and your vision.”

Be a servant leader

“We believe in joint wisdom. I will have some ideas, but they’re not always the best ideas. My approach is to be a servant leader and to make sure everyone has got what they need, in terms of support and professional development, to do their job.

“We do regular staff surveys to determine what areas we should focus on. I’ll come into a briefing with the survey results that will determine what we focus on for the next fortnight. This might be getting students to classes on time so that we have a quicker start to learning, for example."

Cultural expectations

Encourage leaders to immerse themselves in the school culture: “At Harrop Fold we want our leaders to be present and visible at all times. They should be on the ground, be available and understand what’s happening. We call this approach ‘high touch’ leadership. It’s about talking to students, being friendly and accessible, being there in the corridor at break and lunchtimes. Leaders should be immersed in the school culture and be part of the fun of school life.”

  • Colin McLean is chief executive of Best Practice Network, a national provider of training and professional development.


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