There was something of a furore yesterday when it was revealed that a new Free School is intending to hire an unqualified teacher to be the new Headteacher. The question everyone was asking was whether it is possible for such a person to make the school truly successful and what message does this send to the rest of the profession?
We want schools to be great places of learning. It is the job of the headteacher to make the relevant decisions and show the leadership required to make this happen. Some decisions will be financial and this is not an area in which the vast majority teachers have a great deal of experience. Similarly, there will be decisions about resourcing and personnel and it is entirely possible that there are a larger number of more qualified people in these areas outside of the teaching profession than within it.
However, we know from Vivianne Robinson’s fundamentally-important research that as important as these areas are they are not the areas that are most likely to affect outcomes in school.
Robinson evaluated the activities of a number of school leaders and measured the improvement in exam outcomes. She found that the focus on Curriculum and planning as well as setting effective and challenging goals were marginally more effective leadership priorities than strategic resourcing or dealing with bureaucracy.
However, she also found that twice as effective as even the most effective other activity was when headteachers lead the staff in effective, collaborative professional development – i.e. when they engage in peer-to-peer training, actively model how they improve their own teaching and lead others to do the same.
This is a startling and vastly important result. Headteachers or Principals who spend the majority of their time on curriculum, resourcing or personnel are missing out on the most effective lever they have at their disposals to raise pupil achievement. The most effective headteachers are absolutely head teachers.
This finding also gives us a hint about the possible effectiveness of employing a head who is a non-teacher. There is little doubt that they could make extremely effective decisions around resourcing and finances and with good advice they could make effective decisions around curriculum. However, unless they are able to take a pro-active role in leading improvements in teaching and learning the school will probably be less effective than it might otherwise be under a qualified and experienced teacher.
In the Guardian story they state that the new Head is currently undergoing teacher training. This could present a fantastic opportunity for her to model her own learning to the rest of the staff although it will be difficult to build up the trust and respect from other teachers that they feel confident that their new leader will be able to make skilled decisions about pedagogy and behaviour and that she will be able to observe lessons and make suitable judgements.
Frankly, it says a lot about the public status of teaching and education that a group of Free School founders would believe that an outside could do a better job. Would this ever happen in the much-vaunted education systems of Finland, Singapore or Canada? I think it unlikely. However, rather than viewing this development as a threat we should be engaging with this school to make it a success. Far better to welcome the new headteacher and help her understand the and develop the skills needed to effectively lead teaching and learning than petulantly create a pariah who would act as a beacon for those who are already doubting the ability of the teaching profession to improve itself.
While we’re engaging, we should also be vigorously debating the standards that a new Royal College of Teaching could bring to the profession in the hope that every new school founding body would see it as a badge of honour to have a school leader who is a member.