Leadership: the key to successful schools

Yesterday afternoon I attended a service of celebration for the life of William Morris, First viscount Nuffield, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of his death in 1963. Morris was a very influential figure in the development of Oxford, where I live, and also where I serve a part of the city as a county councillor. His Foundation’s support for the Nuffield Science and Mathematics in our schools in the years after the start of the space race in the 1960s affected the learning of a whole generation.

Also yesterday, the BBC reported that Annaliese Briggs had resigned as head of a free school only weeks after the school had opened. Press reports concentrated on her age, just 27 on appointment, and a lack of teaching experience.

The contrasting fortunes of these two individuals set me thinking about the elusive nature of leadership, and the relationship between risk taking and the other skills necessary to be successful, whether in business or education. When William Morris started making his first cars a century ago he didn’t have much knowledge to draw upon as the technology of the combustion engine driven car was still relatively new. There were others starting in the car making business at that time whose businesses didn’t thrive in the way that Morris managed to achieve. Now I am sure that Ms Briggs will go on to achieve great things in the future. Like Morris in 1913, she was starting on a new venture with a vision, but little experience. In this case perhaps that alone was not enough. No doubt when shall know more when the full reasons for her departure become known. The skills learnt making cycles in Oxford undoubtedly helped Morris understand the application of similar production line processes to car making.

Should we applaud the academy chain that took the risk of appointing someone with no formal experience in education as a head teacher or condemn them for rash decision-making? The main question is perhaps: how much risk should we allow in the leadership of schools funded by the State?

Whenever I have been asked by journalists whether anyone can become a head teacher, even with no teaching experience, I always ask the rhetorical question; can I be your editor? If a journalist responds that they always want another journalist running their paper, as they usually do, then they can see the point of my reply. But, I say, what about the period of rapid technological change we have been through during the past twenty years. Did you want an editor with more appreciation of the internet or a nose for a good story? The answer is usually that they want someone with both sets of skills. The editors should have the ability to relate to the current job in hand, but also the foresight to see how it is changing.

I do sometimes wonder how we balance this dichotomy in the education sphere. Fifty years ago middle schools were very fashionable: based on the work of those such as Alec Clegg in West Yorkshire, Roy Mason in Leicestershire, and North in Buckinghamshire. They took risks with the education system, as did the early pioneers of comprehensive education, and a generation earlier those who created the secondary modern schools from the all-age elementary schools.

The leadership for these innovations came very often from within the education establishment, whereas the pressure for change today comes from those emerging challengers to the current orthodoxy. In the past, change in education was also grounded on a sold understanding of the nature and purpose of education. Finding and preparing for leadership those who can blend experience and innovation together with an understanding of the nature of risk in public service is a key task for the National College, and a constant worry for those on the lookout for leaders for all our schools. But perhaps the change that education as a whole has yet to grasp is that from a nineteenth century ideology of schools and classrooms to a twenty-first century increasingly based upon the primacy of the individual. Now that is a topic for another post.

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