Effective Headteachers: In quest of the Holy Grail

25 Aug

(1)       Expectations

Headteachers of schools[1] live on the edge.   They work interminable hours and are expected to be all things to all people. Among other things, headteachers are required to engage in strategic planning, managing and supporting staff, working with parents, promoting the standards and welfare of pupils, working in partnership with other schools, dealing with a multitude of changes including the curriculum and assessment and being accountable to parents, governing bodies, the Department for Education (DfE) and, most of all, Ofsted.     

(2)       Snippets of my history a world away

I grew up a world away from London, both, in distance and time, at a Christian missionary school in, Calcutta (now called Kolkata), India, where the headteacher, who was of Anglo-Indian origin, modelled his school on the English public school system of the 19th century.  The birch was the instrument of instruction and torture.   He himself was an excellent teacher and preacher who mesmerised us in the classroom and at assemblies where he waxed eloquent on the New Testament.

However, God help you if you fell out of line with his norms, many of which were very good.   “Redemption” was a word found only in the New Testament and did not feature in his dictionary.   I recall how, when I was a prefect and tired of the shenanigans of our teacher of the English language, who gave us vast pieces of writings to summarise, but seldom marked our work.  Rather, he would ask various boys (it was a single-sex school) to read out their work after whipping around the class to check from our opened exercise books that we had completed the tasks.

We used to sit in paired desks and I noticed that when he asked one boy sitting at the paired desk to read his précis, he never asked the other.   Accordingly, I decided once not to do my work but rather, bribed a friend to allow me to copy his and sat next to him in the class.

My “lovely” friend soon put it around to the other pupils – with much fun – that I had “cheated” from him.   During the lesson, the teacher asked my sitting mate to read his précis.  After my friend did so, the teacher’s roving eye began moving to another paired desk.  However, as this was happening, a chorus from the other pupils swelled in volume urging the teacher to ask Sassoon to read out his work.

Initially, the teacher demurred, but when my fellow-pupils persisted, he asked me to stand up and read.  I did so and very, very sheepishly told him that I had copied from my friend’s book.   He insisted, however, that I read my work as there could well be variations, but when I told him that I had taken my friend’s work verbatim, he went livid and reported me to the headteacher.

Sure enough, not only was I sanctioned in front of the whole school by the headteacher, but also stripped of my prefectship and given six stripes of the finest, strongest whacks with a sturdy cane on my backside (in front of the entire school during assembly).   It was the most humiliating experience of my school days.  Such an impact it had, that I vowed that if ever I became headteacher I would insist on two things, among many, i.e. that teachers who set work should take the trouble outside of teaching time to mark it and that I would never ever humiliate any pupils with corporate punishment.

When I arrived in this country, I discovered that corporal punishment was still in existence, albeit seldom used.  It was banned in state British schools in 1987, abolished in private schools in England and Wales in 1999 and proscribed in private Scottish schools in 2000 and private schools in Northern Ireland in 2003.  A few private, Christian schools – apparently lacking in Christian charity – held out and fought the ban through the courts, but, thankfully, lost.

During my career, I did become headteacher of a private school, but never ever raised my hand or any instrument in anger.  The argument against the use of corporal punish was won over two decades ago. Children can’t hit back.   Headteachers may have positional power but they best exercise that by commanding the respect of all those whom they serve in their schools through exemplary work and practice.

(3)       Ofsted’s Chief’s view of an effective leader

So what makes an effective leader?   I had great respect for my headteacher, but, sadly, he preferred to enhance the respect of all by inculcating fear when I thought that that was wholly unnecessary.   Sir Michael Wilshaw, the present Chief Inspector of Schools, does believe – through speeches he has made – that fear is an important requisite.

He recently announced that 25% of secondary headteachers operated in a sub-standard manner and, as a result, could lose their jobs. Sir Michael alleged that many headteachers had so little authority that pupils failed to stand when they entered the classrooms and vowed that Ofsted would launch a crackdown on “casual leadership” from autumn 2015.   I did not know that pupils show respect to their headteacher only if they stand up when s/he enters the classroom.

“One in four — a quarter — of leaders in secondary schools are (sic) not good enough,” he said. “We have to do something about that . . . I want high academic achievement, a culture of no excuses and an atmosphere of scholarship. I want every comprehensive school to have a grammar school ethos. I want to launch a national debate about the kind of headteachers we want and need.”

I would, rather, like to see pupils working hard and making maximum effort because they love (rather than fear) their teachers and headteachers.  The Chief Inspector wants pupils to refer to teachers as “Sir” or “Miss”. He said he had “held his head in his hands” when watching reality television programmes filmed in comprehensives that showed pupils misbehaving with near impunity.

He recounted the case of one of his senior inspectors. “She was walking round the school with the headteacher and there was a youngster on the floor in a corner sitting there with a couple of friends eating crisps . . . She expected the youngsters to stand up . . . They did not and the headteacher was forced to walk over those prostrate children. She was aghast.”

What he did not say is what this senior inspector did about what she saw. Being aghast is not enough. Rather, with missionary zeal, the Chief Inspector stated: “The best social work you can do is creating a very orderly, structured environment.”

It is true that the headteacher, who was forced to walk over “those prostrate children”, was falling far short of the standards required of leaders, but does that automatically mean that the only way of addressing the problem is forcing children to stand up when entering the classroom and greeting the teacher or the headteacher with “Good morning, Sir/Miss?”

In India, my school headteacher’s predecessor, Mr Horace Fritchley, was a figure of fun to many of his pupils. He too, tried to inculcate fear into the pupils but often failed spectacularly.

In a Scripture (Religious Instruction) lesson, he told the class of my older brother how once in his youth he stood on Howrah Bridge which spanned the Hooghly River (one of the distributaries of the River Ganges).  He was fed up with life and contemplating whether or not to throw himself into the river.   “Should I jump or not?” he said several times over.  A mischievous lad at the back whispered loud enough for all the pupils to hear, “Jump! Jump!” However, Mr Fritchley, who was short of hearing, did not hear this aside and ploughed on with the story of the hand of God being on his shoulder.

Pupils were on the verge of exploding into laughter but could not at this poignant moment of the story-telling because they would become toast.   Eventually, Mr Fritchley cracked a lame joke which gave them an excuse to burst into loud cacophonous laughter which mystified the narrator because while he thought it was funny, it did not think it was that funny.

(4)       The national standards for headteachers

Fast forward and many years after, when I was an education officer, I came across a headteacher in the authority I served, who would come to school with his dog for protection because he was unable to promote an ordered culture at his school.   The pupils were beyond control and, while he allowed his staff to “go to the dogs”, he kept his for protection.

For every such (bad) example, I can also point to a huge number of excellent exemplars – headteachers who inspire love and respect and create an ethos where pupils find learning fun and their schools are oases of happiness in a bewildering world.

So what are the “standards” for a good headteacher? The DfE has set out in a useful document the four domains in which headteachers are judged.

The first is concerned with qualities and knowledge – holding and articulating clear values and moral purpose – focusing on providing a world-class education.   These (good headteachers are optimistic, have positive relationships and attitudes to their pupils, staff, parents, governors and members of the local community. They lead by example, drawing on their own scholarship and expertise and skills.  They sustain, through continued learning, knowledge and understanding of education, work with political and financial astuteness within principles set by the school’s vision and communicate that vision, which drives their strategic leadership, empowering their pupils and staff.

The second domain focuses on the pupils and staff.   Good headteachers demand high standards of all pupils, overcome disadvantage and advance equality of opportunity.  They instil a sense of accountability in staff and secure excellent teaching by understanding how pupils learn and the core features of successful classroom practice.  They encourage staff to establish an open culture, sharing good practice within and between schools, drawing on relevant, current research and robust data analysis.

They create an atmosphere in which all staff members are motivated and supported to develop their own skills and subject knowledge. They identify emerging talent, coaching and encouraging leaders and potential leaders in a climate where excellence is the norm.   They hold all staff members to account for their professional conduct and practice.

The third domain is concerned with systems and process.   Good headteachers ensure that their systems, organisation and processes are well considered, efficient and fit for purpose.  They uphold the principles of transparency, integrity and probity.   They promote and provide a safe, calm and well-ordered environment for all pupils and staff, focus on safeguarding pupils and develop among them exemplary behaviour.   They establish fair and rigorous systems for managing the performance of staff, address underperformance and improve the performance of all, valuing excellent practice wherever it exists.

They welcome strong governance, actively supporting the governing body to understand its role and deliver its functions effectively, in particular, the school strategy and holding them (the leaders) to account for pupils, staff and financial performance.  They forge teams of colleagues who have distinct roles and responsibilities and hold one another to account for their decision-making.

The fourth domain turns to the self-improving school system.  Excellent headteachers create outward-facing schools which work with other institutions and organisations in a climate of mutual challenge to champion best practice and secure excellent achievements for all pupils.  They develop effective relationships with fellow professionals in education and other public services to improve academic and social outcomes for the pupils.

They challenge educational orthodoxies in the best interests of achieving excellence, harnessing the findings of well-evidenced research to frame self-regulating and self-improving schools.

They shape the current and future quality of the teaching profession through high-quality training and sustained professional development for staff.   They model entrepreneurial approaches to school improvement, leadership and governance, confident of the vital contribution of internal and external accountability.   They inspire and influence others to believe in the fundamental importance of education in young people’s lives.

(5)       A teacher’s recommendations to headteachers

Jo Brighouse, a primary teacher in the Midlands, writing in the TES suggests that if a headteacher wishes to get the best out of staff, s/he should do the following.

(i)            Keep the office door open, for starters.  Staff members often need to “nip in, tell you stuff and sometimes ask for advice”.

(ii)           Second, a headteacher should let staff “get on with it”.  In other words, if the headteacher has seen staff teaching recently and is happy with what s/he sees, if there are no riots taking place, leave the teacher alone.  And “don’t discuss assessment data when “we’re halfway through a mental arithmetic test”.

(iii)          Third, throw a little praise along staff members’ passage through life.  A “well done, take a break and now have a cup of tea” goes a long way.

(iv)         Fourth, don’t doubt staff members when they call in sick, because teachers are generally a stoical lot.  Believe the staff member when phoning in sick. Don’t punctuate the telephone exchange with “heavy sighs”.

(v)          Fifth, lead by example by promoting good behaviour and discipline in self, staff and pupils.   If staff members are expected to keep order, support them in doing so.   Show respect and courtesy to them and others if you expect the pupils to have respect and be courteous to others.

(vi)         Sixth, show an interest in the pupils.  Knowing about the levels children have received in their subjects without knowing their names is unlikely to win the headteacher friends and influence people in the school.   In other words, don’t treat children like statistics.

(vii)        Finally, the headteacher should remember that s/he is still a teacher. Being critical about teachers’ pedagogy without giving advice and better still modelling, will simply alienate the staff.

Where teachers are encouraged and supported in a non-threatening environment, they in turn support the teaching assistants and together, headteacher, teachers and teaching assistants produce “wonderful children”.

And where do the governors feature?   Governors have a responsibility for ensuring that their headteachers are operating by the national norms with both, support and challenge.  I feel somewhat confident that my school headteacher’s predecessor, Mr Fritchley, would certainly have jumped from the bridge into the distributary of the Ganges had he been confronted with all the requirements expected of our headteachers today and would never have lived to tell his tale.

Today’s headteachers, unlike Mr Fritchley, are less concerned with jumping into a river and more with being able learn how to walk on water.

[1] For “Headteachers of schools” also read “Principals of academies”.

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