The architect heads

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

Dr Bernard Trafford was surprised to find himself in the rare position of agreeing with Sir Michael Wilshaw...

How nice it is to be proved right! It’s all about headship styles. New research, produced by the Centre for High Performance and being published in the Harvard Business Review, has found that there are five types of heads. I was intrigued by the main three.

Those characterised by the research team as “philosophers”, the largest group, are heads who try to avoid appearing as managers, leading instead by example, as senior teachers. They emphasise pedagogy above all. In terms of improvement, over time their schools are only middling performers and, in the longer term, some of the least improved. So we’ll leave them...

The fascinating thing about this research, carried out in 160 academies in England, and covering the tenure of 411 headteachers, is the stark difference between the other two leading types. “Surgeons” are brought in (parachuted, as frequently termed) to turn around schools in a hurry. They exclude an average of 25 per cent of final-year students (approaching GCSE) to push up the results and fire 10 per cent of staff. Their impact, says the research, is immediate and dramatic.

When the surgeon head leaves, however, improvement falters: three years on, it’s merely average. Lots of pain, swift gain: but little impact long-term.

That brings us to “architects”. Described as careful planners, architects work on improving standards – first of behaviour, then of teaching. They work with parents, expel children only when behaviour is unacceptable, and replace weaker staff slowly.

Improvement is less dramatic than that achieved by surgeons: but it’s sustainable and, three years after the head has left, improvement is continued: architects’ schools are the best performers in the long run.

It is good to see this research: but it is not rocket science. For two decades I’ve been deploring the pressure from government and, indeed, from academy chains to send in “superheads” to kick change into place. They call it decisive management: I call it bullying.

Speaking on the BBC’s Newsnight last month, out-going Ofsted chief, Sir Michael Wilshaw, was in agreement with the research. He supports architect heads: following tough inspection outcomes, he writes them a letter saying: “I know the school isn’t good enough yet, but you’re putting the pieces in place. Have courage: keep going.”

Receiving such a letter must be odd but gratifying for heads who feel their school has had a kicking from Ofsted.
Slow and steady wins the race, then. As a head, I can see the attraction of the “philosopher” approach: I like to talk about pedagogy, because there is a craft to teaching.

But lasting school improvement is about being an architect: putting the small pieces in place; making sure behaviours (of students and teachers alike) are right; engaging with parents; making sure the school – whatever its type – is in harmony with its setting and community.

Moreover, a school must be at peace with itself, something hard to imagine when a surgeon head is taking the scalpel to its guts.

The architect head’s role approach is certainly not a soft one: but it is humane. It is, perhaps, the iron fist in the velvet glove. It demands careful judgement, kindness and a long view: but it is the right way.

It’s rather like the old joke, how many psychologists does it take to change a lightbulb? Answer: only one, but the lightbulb must really want to change. You can kick change into place as the surgeon head does, but it doesn’t work long-term.

How good to see good sense being talked at last! Yet this research also reveals a deep injustice. Those successful long-term, softly-softly architects are the least well rewarded heads. They are not spectacular, they are not high profile: they do a fantastic, solid, lasting job. But they don’t get the honours, the gongs, and they don’t get the salary: an average of £86,000, rather than £154,000 for superheads. More wrongheaded policy enforcement: more unfairness to people doing a great job. I wonder if this research will change any minds?

  • 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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