Too many headteachers are nearing retirement with too few to take their place. But there are plenty of highly skilled people with the potential to run schools, says Mike Buchanan.
Toby Young, Sir Michael Wilshaw and Sir Anthony Seldon are all colourful characters who prod us with their pronouncements. They are all passionate believers in the transformative power of education and its value to individuals and the nation. And they all tend to provoke a Marmite reaction: you either like them or you don’t.
In the case of their proposal to establish an institute of school leadership, we should carefully consider the message rather than get distracted and blinded by the messengers.
Schools are complex, people-based, multi-layered organisations and the headteacher of today has to wear a multiplicity of hats including moral leader; systems manager; networker; local dignitary; teacher; financier; bureaucrat; autocrat; politician; conductor; conflict resolver; coach; entrepreneur; trade unionist; educationist; builder; cleaner; PR and marketing consultant; visionary . . .
Are they more complex than other organisations? No, but they do have peculiarities, not least that the most important quality they seek to produce is hard to measure and needs acute wisdom to ensure.
Good and highly effective schools (and I don’t mean this in an Ofstedy way) concentrate on two simple things: maximising the achievements of the children in the school, and developing them as people. And both these apply as much to those in the nursery as the stroppy yet adorable teenager. They are inextricably linked and interdependent.
By achievements, I don’t mean a narrow focus on exam outcomes, known in the trade as attainment. Education is and must be much more than merely accumulating certificates. No, I mean achievement in its broadest sense; in music, sport, drama, social action, activities… in any area that the child chooses to pursue.
Developing children as people means promoting and cementing key personal characteristics that will sustain them throughout their lives and help them to be fulfilled: humility, empathy, integrity, compassion, resilience, focus, concentration, curiosity, determination, the ability to work in teams, to be independent and to delay gratification, the willingness to take measured risks, being comfortable with ambiguity and being comfortable with not succeeding, yet. These personal characteristics promote achievement and an individual’s achievements promote these characteristics.
Highly effective schools, whether state-maintained or fee-paying, do this in four simple steps.
We must redefine the nature of school leadership
First, by ensuring that those adults surrounding the child share these values and have the highest possible expectations for the children in their care, so they never impose, consciously or otherwise, any limit on what an individual can achieve.
Second, by expert teaching based on first-rate subject and pedagogical knowledge and the personality to use it to engage young people.
Third, by colliding the children with as many opportunities as possible, inside and outside the classroom.
Finally and crucially, by expert leadership that concentrates on removing all obstacles, so teachers and other adults have the freedom to do their thing without fear of blame, Ofsted, parents, or the next fad.
We simply do not have enough heads in waiting or in preparation, and many old hands are approaching retirement. We do have plenty of highly skilled, capable people with the potential to run our schools. And even if you don’t like the idea of career converters on fast-track development courses for school leadership, we should not close our eyes to the possibility.
We must redefine the nature of school leadership so that our heads, my colleagues, have the knowledge to pursue what is right for their students and to shun all else. We urgently need more women and men of compassion, courage, resilience, determination and colour.
So, let’s see what the three wise men come up with and give it careful consideration. You never know, you might get a taste for Marmite.
Mike Buchanan is headmaster of Ashford school, Kent and head & chair of the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference in 2016/17