A successful career in the classroom will provide most headteachers with a firm foundation in understanding teaching and learning, but the business of managing and leading a school has changed enormously in the past 10 years. Schools are now essentially small businesses with significant autonomy and great responsibilities, meaning headteachers need core expertise in finance, HR and technology. They must also understand the legalities of data protection, contract procurement and a host of other areas that a classroom career simply won’t have prepared them for.
APPLY YOUR VALUES
The management skills required for running a school might have changed beyond all recognition, but the essential leadership skills have remained consistent. Leaders must still possess the communication skills necessary to engage and inspire children, parents, staff and the wider community. They need interpersonal skills that will enable them to share their values and principles with others.
The best headteachers have always been able to do that, but the ways in which they do so have changed. Relying on an unquestioning respect for authority rarely carries a headteacher far these days. Instead, their interpersonal and communication skills have to be more sophisticated if they’re to motivate, inspire and persuade.
Managing staff is the most complex aspect of a school leaders’ role. Every headteacher aspires to leading a happy, productive team that feels respected and looked after – but actually achieving this in practice requires skill and dexterity. The challenge is to keep your approach rooted in fairness and transparency, but with a personal touch that recognises and respects individual difference.
The temptation might be to write complicated policies that set out responses to every conceivable situation, but this quickly becomes fraught with difficulty. Instead, headteachers need strong principles and clear values that they can apply to the many and varied situations they’ll face.
KEEP YOUR BEST TEACHERS
Combine legal HR obligations with performance accountability and staff shortages, and you have a challenging environment for heads. A teacher exhibiting poor attendance or performance may be difficult to challenge in the timescales parents expect or the school needs, due to the lengthy process of challenge and support agreed with unions and because it’s hard to replace teachers mid-term.
Teachers might request part-time work, or adjustments to their roles at different points in their careers that present real challenges to leaders trying to meet the needs of individual staff, colleagues, children and parents. A teacher’s requirement to work part time may be directly at odds with a parent’s expectation that their child will have a single dedicated teacher, for example.
The root cause of these issues tends to rest with the ongoing shortage of good, experienced teachers. Quite simply, too many teachers are leaving the profession – 13% in their first year, 25% within their first three years in the classroom – thus leaving the profession with a dearth of seasoned staff and future leaders. A school may be able to recruit fewer experienced teachers, but they still need a balanced staff cohort with members who can lead and mentor those who are early on in their careers. Without enough experienced staff, the development of new teachers will suffer and just exacerbate the problem.
If we’re to solve this issue, we have to find new ways of keeping our best teachers. Giving them roles that excite and inspire them is part of the answer, but we can’t ignore the basic need to make their jobs more manageable. The workload must be practical, the hours proportionate and the demands reasonable. School holidays alone don’t compensate for working 50-hour weeks on top of whatever family responsibilities they may have.
‘GOOD ENOUGH’ IS OKAY
Schools now do more than they ever have, but headteachers have to ensure that any ancillary work can be sustained. The profession can’t afford to train teachers who subsequently burn out and leave the profession prematurely.
Teachers can often be their own worst enemies in this area – always willing to try harder or do more until they physically can’t do any more; often rejecting the support of published schemes, preferring to believe that they know their class best and can plan better themselves.
As a profession, we have to recognise that sometimes accepting ‘good enough’ will actually allow us to be better for longer, though this will require a culture change at every level. Ofsted has to recognise the importance of sustainability. Leaders must learn how to support their teachers to be not just be ‘the best they can be’ but rather ‘the best they can sustain’. And teachers need to learn that they can’t do it all.
The best leaders will continually ask what really makes a difference, and be willing to challenge some of the things they have always done if they’re not having a positive impact. A certain level of bravery and confidence is needed to truly focus on what’s important for the children. It’s easy to get distracted by other demands, be it marking homework, managing parents’ evening, organising PTA events and so forth.
But as leaders, we should always be asking ourselves, why do we do this? Does it make a difference? How long does it take? What will happen if we don’t do it? Is it worth it? And of course, we need the DfE to lead the way.
Only then can we be sure that our school leaders are getting the best possible value out of the resources available to them, and are providing the most effective leadership and the best learning opportunities they can for children.
Amanda Godfrey is executive head of the Spiral Partnership Trust – a community of schools working in collaboration to provide exceptional education. For more information, visit spiral.herts.sch.uk or follow @spiralexechead