A few years ago, I worked under a fantastic head of department. She struck just the right balance of leadership and management for me; she drew effectively on the strengths of her team to further the success of the department. Under her, our department became a real strength of the school. Then, because of her success, we lost her. She was called to fill in for a senior leader, and our department was left temporarily rudderless. She was officially still responsible for managing the department, but her priorities were understandably divided. We were no longer her primary focus, and our work was the weaker for it. A project which she had begun to lead started to falter, and as a teacher in her team, the quality of my work suffered.
None of this will come as a major shock to those who know much about leadership. Deprive a team of its leadership, and despite the best intentions, efforts and abilities of said team, you will likely affect its achievements. It wasn’t terminal, but nor was it conducive to good progress. Everyone from the Secretary of State to the secretary of the smallest primary school will tell you that an effective school is invariably led by an effective leader. Good leaders get good results from their teams; they lead them, they manage them, they pick up poor performance and support poor performers to improve… they are the driving force behind improvement.
In particular, when a teacher is failing to meet the required standards, often a whole host of people will become involved in managing their improvement. Initially, perhaps an aware Head of Department might informally observe, support and in some ways manage the performance of that teacher. If that fails to achieve the desired outcomes, then the more formal processes of performance management and capability might be employed. More leaders devoting time to improving the performance of one individual.
Even the well-performing teacher can expect his entitlement to personalised performance management, a direct relationship with a leader, and someone monitoring their achievements -however formally or distantly – with the aim of supporting that teacher to perform to the best of their ability.
Now consider the average secondary school student. To whom should he look for leadership and management?
The form tutor that they share with 25 other students, during their daily 15-minute encounters?
The head of year that they share with 250 other students that stands before them in assemblies?
The headteacher that they share with perhaps 2500 others, across multiple sites?
Or maybe each of the 12 individual teachers he sees throughout the week?
Even in a primary school each child is reduced to being merely 1 in 30 of a ‘team’ that is led by one person. But at least there that person is with the group long enough to identify strengths, weaknesses, and perhaps most importantly changes. Ask the average primary school teacher about their students and they’ll be able to tell you whose parents are divorced, who is making less progress this term than last, who seems to have lost focus, whose Guinea pig died this week… and a host of other things that might affect students’ achievements. And in many cases, they’ll adapt their teaching, or their interactions to take account of those things.
The nature of secondary schooling denies that opportunity. A form tutor just doesn’t have that time. And how many form tutors ever actually see their students in lessons, taking part, learning, engaging?
When a child stops achieving, who notices? And when?
Is it the data manager, when his cell on the spreadsheet turns orange? Or the Head of Year when his name appears on a “to target” list? And how long after the event is that? And who is able to provide the insight into why that might be?
There is a huge amount to be said for specialist teaching; it’s an absolute necessity. But imagine the life of a Year 7 student. He has to be led and managed by several different individuals, with different requirements, different levels of support, different expectations, and differing levels of interaction with him.
Teachers worry about changes in leadership between one long-standing Head and another. Imagine having to change your leader every 50 minutes!