The most significant step on the path to the four lettered door is the one that takes us to senior leadership. As the challenge (and there’s a euphemistic word if there was one) of facing the Chair of Governors loomed, it was those experiences of senior leadership that kept me sane. Actually, that is perhaps a little unfair. I was probably as much as pain to the Chairs as they were to me. Even then, of the six whom I faced in mortal combat, more than half were really very good. But like feedback from a lesson observation, it is the negative among the many positives that sticks in the mind.
My first chairlady was, simply, nuts. I took on a school in special measures, and this governor (she was a cleaner by trade) had been dealing with her failing primary by seizing on the pupils’ data which she would then ‘analyse’ (i.e., put in a table top to bottom) then share with the village. Her reasoning was that it would reward the clever and motivate the less so. Fortunately, she soon went and next came an accountant who was everything a head could want; friendly, supportive, occasionally challenging. Her replacement was also an accountant, and also very good. Next, a banker, who was never overly friendly but did a fine job. You can see a pattern emerging her. Then Mrs Disaster, a self employed educational consultant who saw the school as her own personal fiefdom, and cash cow. Finally, a civil servant – polite, supportive.
I suppose I was lucky overall, even if Mrs Disaster shapes my thoughts. But it was the lessons learned in senior leadership (and there were plenty) which supported me during the hardest times; and perhaps helped me to achieve the successful ones.
Senior management, or senior leadership (I plan, democratically, to interchange the terms), is the nervous system of a school. If the head is its brain, the governors the virus attacking it (sorry, it’s Mrs D again), teachers its beating heart and students the blood flowing through its arteries, then it is senior management that provides the communication between the various parts.
Joining Senior Leadership
There is little doubt that moving across the divide is the point at which one of us becomes one of them. Internal appointment can result in a touch of jealousy, we are no longer the person moaning about having to cover when Mrs Lazy-Bones succumbs to her fortnightly day of shopping – sorry, illness. Now we are the person deciding who does that cover.
Suddenly, we are no longer one of the gang down the pub on a Friday night, but the one who asks (by which we mean tells) people to do things. Most of our colleagues will remain our friends, but awkward moments are inevitable if we, as senior leaders, are doing our job properly.
Being appointed from outside also brings its issues. Although our colleagues on senior leadership team will hopefully be supportive, they are a small group, and usually we don’t develop really close friendships with other staff. We can’t, we are their boss.
Senior leadership roles vary from school to school. The head sits at the top (and if SMT can be lonely, remember it is lonelier for the head) then most larger schools have a deputy of two, perhaps one for the academic side (a post which used to be called Director of Studies, but is now known by a myriad of titles), another for pastoral care. Any number of assistant heads come next. Often the business manager or bursar will feature on the SMT. Then, there are the idiosyncrasies of schools. There may be a SENDCo, a Head of Sixth Form, a senior teacher. Perhaps somebody who has been on the team for years, is a bit past their best, and holds a bizarre title, like keeper of the keys of the detention room. Rest assured, if we are seeking promotion to join this group, when the Key Keeper finally retires, the post will go with him.
Applying for A Senior Management Role
Most senior positions will be appointed by the head, while the head will be a governors’ (for which read owners/chief executive etc depending on the type of school) appointment. Deputies are usually appointed by a team of the head and a governor, but if in reality it is not the head who makes the call, there is something wrong.
The top post apart, I think that the ideal candidate to join a senior leadership team is one with a plan to move on after five years. That is time enough to make an impact, but not so long that one becomes too cloistered in a school. One of the biggest problems in failing schools is stagnation, like a body whose nervous system slows down. It continues to function, but lethargically. Senior leadership team provides the energy to keep a school dynamic.
Of course, having the odd relevant course on your CV helps the application process. Mostly, it is not a deal breaker but provides evidence that the candidate likes to keep abreast of current thinking. More important is a knowledge of trends in education, and how they might benefit the school in question. But of most significance is the ability to get on with people, while at the same time holding them to account.
I have seen weak heads appoint assassins, usually to the post of deputy. It doesn’t work. Teachers won’t be bullied, and that is a good thing. I worked with one, a shocking ex-army type, not very bright, whose management style was to point in the face of his victim (adult or child) and quietly abuse through clenched teeth. The school fundamentally fell apart during his tenure. That the head was of the worst kind: chip on the shoulder, prejudiced, discriminatory and self-promoting did not help.
Good heads want senior managers who are going to be a presence in their school. At interview, communicating a clear expectation of a significant (but not unmanageable) teaching load, a wish to circulate the school at break each scores points in our favour. After all, if senior leadership is to be recognised as such (by students, teachers and parents) it has to be seen around.
The Qualities of a Senior Manager
Although senior leadership team jobs do vary, the best senior managers share characteristics.
Recognition that Priorities Change
Classroom practice is no longer our personal priority. But it is still what we, as teachers, do. As soon as a senior colleague forgets what it is like to be in the classroom respect for them vanishes. But actually, senior leadership makes good teaching easier. Mr Jones teaches 90% of the week and has to be on the ball for 27 out of 30 periods. Miss Assistant-Head (occasionally known as Miss Ass-Head) has half a teaching load, and can spend longer preparing classes. If she is not at her best for ‘leadership’ work, she can put it off for an hour.
As a member of the senior management team, there is a greater likelihood that you will be involved in lesson observations and appraisal. You should never forget how stressful these events can be for those on the receiving end. Feedback should be positive and constructive; never judgemental.
Recognition of the Important Role of Middle Leaders
Middle managers need support. But they also need challenge. Getting the balance between these right is crucial. Too much support and the middle manager might feel suffocated and unable to act independently, too much challenge and they can feel that success is impossible.
A presence at the beginning and the end of the day, through break times and at lunch helps to establish credibility. It also helps to pre-empt problems. As Head, my time at the school gates in the morning was sacrosanct; if I really could not do it, then another SMT member did. Not only was it good to greet the students as they arrived, but parents with issues knew I would be there, and could catch me before their issues escalated.
Staying Ahead of the Educational Game
I read an interesting article about senior leaderships in the Guardian. The writer, an educational consultant, came up with one particularly clever idea. Establish a library of books, articles and magazines on education. Many schools have the newspaper article which is pinned untidily to the wall of the staff room for two years before somebody takes it down. This library is more formal. A collection of books and articles that are maintained, tracked and updated. Placed in the staffroom, teachers will browse during a coffee break. Just like the school library, the area of the room should be bright and interesting.
It’s a great suggestion to make at interview, which not many others will come up with (unless, of courses, they are followers of this blog!)
Students need praise, and teachers give it. We should not forget that teachers also need this reinforcement, and it is up to senior leadership to offer that. Even though it may be accepted with no more than a nod, genuinely meant and properly deserved praise has a value beyond measure. In studies of the motivating factors behind teacher success, being recognised for the job we do rates among the highest factors.
The head also needs praise. We should not forget that.
If being head is the best job in a school, joining the senior leadership team runs it a close second. Yes, it is challenging, and the move to the large scale management of adults is not necessarily a skill we develop as teachers. But we are the best people to do it, because we understand what is involved in being an educator.
And as a good senior manager, it will be just a short period of time before our cramped, shared office stuffed full of old library chairs turns into somewhere plush, with a nice sofa and large table. And the word ‘Head’ on the door.