Does size matter?
Having spent some time looking at how a small secondary school can afford to deliver a curriculum which is both compliant and engaging in the current trying financial conditions, the thing that becomes most apparent isn’t the cost of staffing the curriculum. It’s the cost of leading it.
There is a reluctance to break away from the usual pattern of subject leaders and pastoral structures which has been deployed in secondary schools of all sizes for a generation, and despite the pressure this places on the budget of a small school.
Does a 600 place secondary school really need to retain the lines of accountability and leadership structures of a 1,500 place secondary school, or might it learn from the far slimmer structure of similar sized primary schools? Secondary schools typically spend around a third of their staffing budget on leadership at all levels. Primary schools about half of that.
To take one example: the lowest funded four-form entry secondary school in Hampshire receives an annual budget of £2,895,000. On the basis that 75% of this is spent on staffing, the staffing budget would amount to £2,171.250. Zero based budgeting suggests that a compliant curriculum with limited options for 600 pupils can be delivered for little more than half this amount. This draws into question the proportion of staff spend that is devoted to activities other than teaching.
The leadership model for a secondary school has remained largely unchanged since the establishment of comprehensive schools in the 1960s, although even this model was fundamentally taken from the way in which public schools were run. This design requires a headmaster/headmistress who appoints deputies to whom responsibilities can be devolved. Schools then establish their preferred pastoral system led by house or year heads, and a series of academic subject leaders.
Even if this remained the most sensible model for a school today of 1,500 students, is it sustainable, or desirable, for a school a third of that size? Since the core responsibility of a school is to ensure the highest quality learning and teaching, this raises four questions for a headteacher to consider:
- How much leadership do my teachers need?
- What sort of leadership will improve pupil outcomes?
- What, exactly, are middle leaders leading?
- What leadership structure represents best value for money?
How is headteacher time spent?
The National Standards of Excellence for Headteachers describe the role of headship in 144 words:
Headteachers occupy an influential position in society and shape the teaching profession. They are the lead professionals and significant role models within the communities they serve. The values and ambitions of headteachers determine the achievements of schools. They are accountable for the education of current and future generations of children. Their leadership has a decisive impact on the quality of teaching and pupils’ achievements in the nation’s classrooms. Headteachers lead by example the professional conduct and practice of teachers in a way that minimises unnecessary workload and leaves room for high quality continuous professional development for staff. They secure a climate for the exemplary behaviour of pupils. They set standards and expectations for high academic standards within and beyond their own schools, recognising differences and respecting cultural diversity within contemporary Britain. Headteachers, together with those responsible for governance, are the guardians of the nation’s schools. (January 2015)
The leadership of headteachers is demonstrably the defining factor in school success, notably because he/she determines the priorities and the focus for all the teaching and non-teaching staff in the school, and ensures that the outcomes achieved by pupils is the thing of paramount importance. Clearly, based upon the description above, the headteacher is going to need help in translating that vision into reality and ensuring that practice is consistent. Does this, however, require a team of heads of department and a team of pastoral heads?
In December 2012 the National College for School Leadership published ‘Review of the School Leadership Landscape’ which concluded that the three top concerns for school leaders were:
- Pupil outcomes
However, the same review concluded that the three top skills school leaders said they needed were:
- Strategies for closing attainment gaps
- Leading curriculum change
- Modelling excellence in leading teaching and learning
There is a mismatch here which suggests that school leaders need to spend more of their time doing the things they know make the biggest difference, and less time on the things they worry most about.
If headteachers dealt with their number one worry by employing the expertise they need to manage financial planning in the form of a Business Manager, either of their own or across their MAT, they would be able to focus on their number one priority: closing attainment gaps. This might prompt a different approach to leadership and one which has the potential to address their second biggest worry: Ofsted success.
Although some approaches to pedagogy are demonstrably better suited for some types of learning, leadership of learning and modelling the best teaching is not, on the whole, subject specific – as is demonstrated by the approach to learning taken in large, successful primary schools. Good teachers respond flexibly to the needs of their learners and apply a variety of approaches and methodologies. Schools might want to review the role and impact of subject heads and consider whether the administrative aspects of this role could be carried out more comprehensively and less expensively than by paying a leadership premium.
The aspects of the role concerned with teacher performance and pupil progress are the stuff of leadership, but many subject areas in small schools have only one team member, and some are only managing themselves. Should the powerhouse of middle leadership reside in a large number of small fiefdoms, or in two or three senior teaching and learning leads informed by subject specific knowledge from leading teachers in classrooms?
Pastoral leadership often focusses on the management of behaviour and school leaders recognise that poor behaviour is frequently generated by poor teaching and inadequate learning. Less variation and inconsistency between subject expectations and the quality of teaching has the potential to improve behaviour and make intervention less frequent, thus reducing the need for several pastoral leads.
Is it possible, therefore, to consider that the approach to leadership, particularly in a small school, might move:
From a model which provides a clear hierarchy but ties up significant resource in middle leadership, where middle leaders in singleton departments with no staff responsibilities have little influence on the quality of teaching and learning across the school and limited access to subject debate or the sharing of pedagogical practice. A model where tackling inconsistency and mission creep is an on-going struggle.
To a model where the headteacher and his/her deputies focus all staff on the quality of pedagogy through the work of two or three highly skilled teaching and learning leads, thereby ensuring that teaching, learning and assessment inform good behaviour and progress for all students and groups of students. A model where leading teachers advise on and promulgate subject specific pedagogy but the whole school is responsible for consistent and pupil-focussed practice.
What sort of leadership can your school afford?
Melanie Saunders was recently Head of Education Strategy for Hampshire County Council and is now an independent consultant.