Why effective heads don’t need to have been teachers

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

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  1. The fact that Mike Buchanan is “headmaster of Ashford school, Kent and head & chair of the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference in 2016/17” has a significant bearing on the viewpoint he expresses above.

    I don’t believe a successful headTEACHER of a state school would make a similar claim. With experience comes wisdom.

    • Mike Buchanan

      Do read the article carefully rather than the Headline/intro (which is not mine). I agree that leading a school takes wisdom which comes from experience. Hence, the many of potential I refer to are our existing teachers. However, there may also be some with the ability and personal characteristics to develop that wisdom having come from other careers.

      • Fair point Mike, but the “three wise men” you refer to are advocating that Headteachers can be produced after 2 years’ experience of teaching, and I believe you are advocating Headteachers can be appointed who have zero experience of teaching.

        The backgrounds of Toby Young, Sir Michael Wilshaw and Sir Anthony Seldon are important when weighing up whether we should accept their advice (and yours) on a new model of producing Headteachers. Toby Young appointed himself to the paid position of CEO of his own MAT, and has got through more Headteachers in 3 years than teachers get through board markers.

        Sir Michael Wilshaw famously said “if morale in the staffroom was low, the head could be assured he was doing something right”.

        Sir Anthony Seldon whilst a successful independent school Headteacher, lasted only a few months as the Headteacher of a state Comprehensive Academy before resigning.

        We have a government that believes teachers need no formal teaching qualifications, and now your suggestion is that Headteachers need no teaching experience. Whilst this may be appropriate in the private sector where parents can vote with their wallets, I believe it is not an acceptable model for educating 8 million children in state schools.

        • Mike Buchanan

          I think we are saying the same thing. I’m merely suggesting that we should not close our eyes to the possibility of some people gaining the necessary wisdom more quickly than others and coming from various perspectives. The vast majority of future school leaders are in our schools now and we need to be systematically developing them.

          As I said, let’s not confuse the message with the messengers.

  2. ThePlace

    Head teachers need to be highly educated, and excellent at writing and speaking.
    Who are tpupils going to emulate if not their head teachers?

    It will also enable them to understand why teachers require better conditions and pay.