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BaldnewJohn Bald on what makes for a good and poor leadership in our schools.

Sir Michael Wilshaw, HMCI, suggests a significant minority of school headteachers – he says around 5,000 – lack leadership. It's hard to know exactly how many there are, but I've met a lot, particularly in secondary schools. Here are what seem to me to be characteristics of good and bad leaders:

Good leaders

  • Get about their school a lot, showing staff and children that they're there, encouraging them and giving an example of courtesy and responsibility. Eisenhower was good at this.
  • Plan well.
  • Understand teaching and learning, keep track of children's progress, and take action to improve it when it slips.
  • Encourage and reward good work among all staff, giving public praise and credit where it is due, including rewarding staff who do good work in difficult circumstances.
  • Take action to improve teaching when necessary, and take urgent action to improve unsatisfactory and poor teaching.
  • Support their staff over poor behaviour, and do not tolerate low level indiscipline, such as talking and using mobile phones.
  • Share responsibility with their staff, consulting and supporting them and expecting results in return
  • Promote learning beyond the school day by every possible means, just as the private sector does.
  • Leave last in the evening (most evenings).


Poor leaders

  • Pull rank.They hear what colleagues say without listening to it. A particular problem in secondary schools, where one of these people told an experienced head of department, "I can do whatever I like". Unfortunately, this is more or less true. The modern Army understands leadership, and we can learn from it.
  • Don't support their staff, tolerate misbehaviour and disrespect to everyone except themselves, and do not use the new disciplinary powers given by the government.
  • Mistake micro-mamagement for leadership, inflicting excessive paperwork on staff and imposing systems that take no account of professional judgement.
  • Sit in their office in meetings all day. One I knew had "the headmaster's corridor" outside his office, where no pupils were allowed. Peace reigned – there at least. A pupil lost an eyeball when someone fired a paperclip at him with an elastic band in a science lesson.
  • Look at poorly construed statistics rather than ensuring good learning for all of their pupils.

There is clearly more to say and finer lines are to be drawn. But Sir Michael is right. Not all headteachers are like him. There is a typically weaselly quote from a heads' union leader in the ST piece to the effect that teachers should not be "intimidated" by pupils' behaviour. It is the head's responsibility to ensure that they are not, and it is good to hear this said by HMCI and not some poor whistleblower who can be victimised and hauled up before the kangaroo court of the GMC, as happened under New Labour.  I once got into trouble with a lead inspector (a choir school alumnus) for helping a teacher control behaviour in a class who had reduced her to tears. He said that I was wrong to intervene and that teachers "had to be
tough". No one can pull rank on HMCI.

And this from Sir Michael on Teach First: 

“I was talking to Teach First [a teaching charity]: they are bright-eyed and bushy-tailed — idealistic. Sometimes they go into schools where leadership is not good, where behaviour is not good, they are not supported in the early years of their career as much as they should. It has got very little to do with workload or bureaucracy or anything like that, that’s not true. They leave when they are in a school where the leadership is not good.”

See Oenone Crossley-Holland's Hands Up! for a first-hand view of this type of Teach First Experience.

And finally, a quote from Denis Hill, a former senior adviser for training in Essex, about the County hierarchy – "Some people are promoted to the point at which they no longer feel obliged to think." Denis was mostly thinking of chief education officers, but he could easily have reeled off a dozen secondary heads who fell into that category, and a smaller number of primary heads.

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