Fast-track to leadership?

Written by: Dr Bernard Trafford | Published:
Dr Bernard Trafford, head, Royal Grammar School, Newcastle

Proposals for a fast-track leadership college have caused some scepticism. Dr Bernard Trafford has three concerns

“I’m pretty sceptical of fast-track schemes.” That was the response of NAHT general secretary Russell Hobby following the announcement of a new planned leadership college. The Department for Education is considering funding the plan, the brainchild of the highly influential trinity of Sir Michael Wilshaw, Toby Young and Sir Anthony Seldon.

Based at the University of Buckingham, it will parachute young trainee heads into schools after a mere two years at the college. Two years following a lengthy time in the profession, surely? No: for bright graduates, just the two years. Still, candidates will have qualified teacher status, so they must have spent a year or two in the classroom.

If I’m honest, I’m with Mr Hobby – deeply sceptical. I have no difficulty with the idea of identifying high-quality potential leaders and fast-tracking them. Nor do I think a teacher should have to bear any particular scars as badges of honour, nor have fulfilled particular roles or completed a specified number of years at the chalkface.

But there are three pitfalls in this plan. First, we’re not short of senior leaders in this country’s schools, only of heads. Mr Hobby asks why so many deputies don’t want to take the next step upwards: the question is directed at policy-makers.

Government policy over the last few decades has rendered maintained sector headship both burdensome and insecure. There’s little incentive for a head to go into a struggling school: if the results don’t come quickly, and particular targets (whatever’s the flavour this month) are not met, they can soon be out of a job.

Maybe heads need more guarantees of security, or danger-money, or both? Experienced senior teachers with families and mortgages will think twice before accepting high-risk posts. All the more reason, then, why the rapid promotion of much younger professionals might seem attractive, before they have those responsibilities.

That raises the second difficulty. Sir Anthony Seldon, vice-chancellor at Buckingham, is sure he can bring “great people into the system” and “prepare them better so they are more compassionate, wise, accomplished, rounded leaders rather than mean, sausage-factory, league-table obsessed people”.

Marvellous: we need more of that. But with minimal experience of hacking the job in the classroom, can even a high-powered two-year course transform them into leaders with the experience on which to base judgements, the perspective and the sheer in-depth knowledge of the job and system to manage teachers (who can be a handful) and grasp the complexities of a school? I have to say I doubt it.

And third. Even if training is sufficient to compensate for the gaps in experience, what authority will these new heads possess for the workforce they lead (and, come to that, the parents who trust them with their children)? Few people have made it to headship without significant experience in schools. Of the tiny number to have done so, few have lasted.

Leadership must be authentic. I’ve met great leaders of large engineering firms: they’ve all been, well, engineers by background. They’re not accountants or management experts: though they may employ both to help run the enterprise.

Similarly the millions of personal interactions that take place in a school day or week are of such bewildering variety that for a head there can be no substitute for significant experience in that world.

The three minds behind this plan are powerful figures. They’re certainly not ill-informed: but I fear their enthusiasm to solve an indisputable problem has led them to make a leap too far. Teaching’s tough. Those who lead teachers must have walked in their shoes, known their joys and frustrations and shared that buzz when the child understands, learns and moves on. That (and only that) is authentic leadership.

  • Dr Bernard Trafford is head of Newcastle’s Royal Grammar School and a former chairman of HMC. His views are personal. Follow him @bernardtrafford


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