One Way or Another

Stepping into headship seems like it must be a unique experience.

Each school, each cohort of students, each staff team, each building, each set of routines is different.

There are commonalities of course. Schools are ALL made up of cohorts of students, staff teams, buildings and sets of routines. These might differ from school to school, but all schools have them.

Each headteacher or principal is different too. They bring with them all of the unique experiences, knowledge and know-how they have gleaned from their past. They bring with them their views on what education is for and what schools should do.

Importantly, and this is particularly the case for inexperienced headteachers, they bring with them all of the gaps in that experience and knowledge and know-how too.

In a recent sequence of posts for Ambition Institute, Jennifer Barker and Tom Rees have explored the question, “What is school leadership and how can we develop it?” They’ve looked at the concept of school leadership, the complexities of the problems faced by school leaders and the differences between generic leadership and domain specific leadership expertise.

Get lost in the crowd / One way or another

Barker and Rees argue that educational leadership development has historically focused on leaders’ personal traits, values and behaviours, or their generic leadership skills such as creating a vision, communication or leading change.

They cite Christine Counsell as a proponent of a more domain specific style of leadership:

‘the absence of an adequate model of senior curriculum leadership seems to me to deepen fundamental and longstanding problems in schools with which we have all wrestled, from weak assessment systems to problems with generation and interpretation of data, from problematical judgements about teaching and learning, to attraction and retention of fine teachers, from teacher development to the effectiveness of CPD’ (Counsell, 2018, para 7).

Many would argue that the same is to some extent the case for behaviour, SEND, attendance, safeguarding, pastoral systems and transition.

In secondary schools and larger primaries Deputy Heads or Vice Principals have, more often than not, honed their leadership skills overseeing either pastoral or academic matters. Unless they have at some point stepped across from academic to pastoral leadership or vice versa, leaders may have some experience or knowledge of the other domain but this is more likely to be at surface level.

This, combined with the fact that the historic version of the training route to headship (the NPQH) has focused on generic leadership skills rather than domain specific knowledge, has made the challenge of stepping up to headship even more challenging.

Towards the end of the third post in their series, Barker and Rees point out, “Whilst it might intuitively sound right that leadership development should focus on ‘both’ generic and domain specific approaches, this view is built on the assumption that they (generic leadership skills and domain specific bodies of knowledge) are two different things.”

You’ll see there is the master plan / It’s like a big blueprint

What they appear to be proposing – though I’ll await their next post to check I’m not putting words in their mouths – is a model of school leadership content knowledge similar to Shulman’s PCK (pedagogical content knowledge) model.

This is crude, but as an example: there is content knowledge about SEND and there is school level contextual knowledge about a particular child and their specific educational needs. There are generic skills to run meetings, but there is also a really effective way to run a great meeting with that specific child and their parents/carers to reach the best outcome.

As a further example: there is a generic set of principles behind devising and getting buy in to a vision. There is also a whole host of content knowledge about different aspects of school life and a further range of contextual knowledge about the specific school you’re leading which, if you fail to grasp, will limit the chances you have of bringing the vision to life.

When we first set foot in the classroom, the cognitive load makes it incredibly challenging to be a teacher. There are thousands of human interactions and decisions we are making which are helped immensely by:

  1. Knowing how to set up and maintain effective structures and routines
  2. Knowing the curriculum
  3. Knowing our students and any specific needs they have
  4. Knowing how to draw out and spot our students’ misconceptions
  5. Knowing the optimum strategies to address a specific misconception

The cognitive load involved in headship can be similarly intense, on a grander scale, and even more public.

It requires:

  1. Knowing how to set up and maintain effective structures and routines
  2. Knowing school leadership content knowledge
  3. Knowing our students and any specific needs they have
  4. Knowing how to draw out and spot our students and staff misconceptions
  5. Knowing the optimum strategies to address a specific misconception
  6. Knowing a million other things which don’t fit neatly into a list of five things

At first, and without guidance or swift learning for some time, this can be overwhelming.

One way or another / I’m gonna see ya

A significant part of this is about the development of school leadership content knowledge, but it is also about perception, which Doug Lemov writes about in the context of sports coaching here saying:

“Some important things to know about perception…

  • Perception is not automatic or objective. What we see is subjective and we fail to see a great deal that is right in front of our eyes. Alternatively we can see something and react to it and not realize it.
  • We are unaware of the great majority of our own actions regarding perception. We are rarely conscious of where we are looking when we play for example.
  • Surprisingly experts look at fewer things during performance than novices. In many ways the definition of their expertise is that they know where to look.
  • What we think of as poor decisions are often failures of perception instead.

Back in 2016, research carried out by the National Governance Association (NGA), The Future Leaders Trust and the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) estimated that, “there may be a demand for between 3200 and 6700 more executive headteachers by 2022.” The report states “In the self-improving system [Executive Principals] can provide strategic capacity and oversight across more than one school or equivalent responsibility.”

Trainees and Early Career Teachers receive support from mentors to develop pedagogical content knowledge in their subjects and perception in their classrooms. Given the similarities in need between trainee teachers and new to post headteachers, it is perhaps surprising there isn’t the same expectation around mentoring.

Having an Executive Principal perhaps isn’t right for everyone, but having a mentor as a new headteacher is incredibly beneficial in supporting with gaps in knowledge, know-how and perception.

I realize this is anecdotal and that one might argue that lots of headteachers have made the step up without one, but I know I’ve benefited massively from having an Executive Principal as well as a Regional Director to turn to for support as well as to direct my focus towards some things I might not otherwise have perceived so effectively. I genuinely don’t think I could have started my journey as a headteacher as effectively without this – especially not in the midst of a pandemic.

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