Subtle leadership and blowing the heads off dandelions…

Blowing head off a dandelion
Blowing head off a dandelion

Sharing best practice. Sharing next practice. Glib phrases that roll off the tongue. But sometimes at CPD events it is difficult to share some of the nuances of subtler leadership strategies that you get to observe, and see disseminated. So here goes a retrospective attempt to describe blowing the heads off dandelions…

I once worked on a national DfE-funded project (though when DfE was called something else, a while back) which involved regularly visiting a small number of struggling secondary schools. They had been identified as being in some difficulties, and it was thought they would benefit from some sympathetic external support and challenge. Restorative, not punitive. A nice idea in nicer times, that involved an awful lot of long train journeys that were the only down side of the arrangement. It also furnished me with some real insights into the challenges being faced in some of our more deprived areas, and an increasing admiration for the school leaders with whom I found myself working.

Eating peace, off a knife

I can honestly say I enjoyed all these visits. One real mark of success was when the school leader trusted you enough to reveal some of the hidden thinking behind experiences you had during your series of visits. Like the school in the centre of Birmingham where, as lunchtime approached, I was encouraged to mingle with the pupils to eat, along with the other teachers. No staff tables, but a great opportunity to chat to the pupils as you picked out a table, where you were made welcome, and quizzed. ‘How civilised’, I thought, ‘how it gives the staff an opportunity to really meet pupils, and it definitely changes the behaviour in the dining hall’. I really enjoyed the lunch, the conversation and the whole lunch dynamic.

Birmingham Victoria Square
Birmingham Victoria Square

At my after lunch session with the relatively newly-appointed head, I made appreciative noises about the idea as a great way of breaking down barriers between staff and pupils. He smiled wrily. ‘Well,’ he explained, ’when I arrived here, relations between staff and students had totally broken down. Oh, and there had just been two separate stabbings in the lunch hall, which the staff couldn’t get to in time to prevent injury, as so few staff would go to eat lunch there. So I mandated that all staff must take school lunch with the students, which I funded to help soften the blow, and said every table had to have a member of staff eating at it.’

Later in the day I questioned my ‘contact teacher’ about how this had gone down in the staffroom? ‘Well as you can imagine there were some moans, but to be honest the staff were so grateful that someone was coming in and trying to take action that they went along with it. The free lunch helped, and even the union reps backed off from a confrontation. And to be honest everyone was amazed at how quickly it changed the atmosphere and culture at the school. When the option of staff not taking a free lunch sitting with the kids came back later, most staff stuck to it because they realised it had improved their relationships with the students’. I was not surprised to see that school turn itself round in the next few years, and that its performance improved significantly.

Taxi for Dr P

Then there was the school in the north-east, also placed in the same category, which I always really looked forward to visiting. When I rang to arrange the visit my contact, one of the assistant heads, insisted on coming to meet me from the station. By now I was used to such visits, and the inevitable taxis from station to school.

Station taxis
Station taxis

In fact, the taxi drivers had become a useful source of information. Unlike London cabbies, who always seem to want to talk about right wing politics, their regional counterparts, on hearing you were going to a school, would give you a detailed breakdown of its local reputation. They’d gleefully tell you what type of kids went there, and its general standing in the area. Useful stuff, providing it was accompanied by the usual pinch of salt. But at this school, the assistant head insisted on meeting me at the station ‘It’s nae bother, bonny lad, I can go that way on me way to work’. It would have been churlish to refuse, and to be fair, I probably got more useful info from him on the twenty-minute journey from station to school that I would from the average taxi-driver. And he didn’t pull punches either.

A great day at the school, which seemed mutually beneficial, was followed by a lift back from one of the staff and nice noises about my next visit. Sure enough, when I rang the next time, my contact insisted on coming to meet me again, despite my assurances it wasn’t necessary.

On the journey this time, the full story came out. For a while the situation at the school had been so bad that taxi drivers would often refuse to take visitors to the school, on account of its reputation and the rough area it was in. This meant that external contacts such as inspectors, visiting heads etc arrived with a particular view of the place. So the head had decreed that wherever possible one of his senior leadership team would collect such visitors from the station. This also gave them chance to size up the visitor, and paint a picture of the school that would ensure that both sides would get the maximum benefit out of the visit. Brilliant! It certainly made visitors like myself feel welcome, set the day up well, and allowed the school to get its retaliation first, if needed. I loved visiting that school, and kept in touch long after the DfE-funding for the project dried up.

Not all the leaders in the schools in that project displayed such subtle leadership strategies. Sadly in some cases it was all too clear that lack of suitable leadership skills was part of the problem facing a school. But in the main it restored my belief that in most cases the schools were fighting valiantly against the social deprivation in the communities that they served. Their poor performance was often a result, not a cause, of the problems faced. And the school leaders’ main enemy was any feeling of hopelessness, or ‘what do you expect with kids like these?’ Luckily this was a sentiment I only rarely encountered.

What’s in a name…

Of course I also visited many schools at the other end of the spectrum, where I was seeking examples of good practice to help share more widely. Here again I encountered leaders with some subtle and often equally guarded secrets that it was an honour to have shared with outsiders like myself. One of my favourites was a school in the East Midlands, where my contact had an elaborate job title that bore no resemblance to the usual Head, Deputy Head, Assistant Head, Head of Dept chain of command. In fact it was such an unusual title that I had no idea where the occupant stood in the school hierarchy.

During the day I was introduced to a whole range of folk with roles linked to ICT, with job titles that were equally impressive and equally as uninformative. By the end of the day, when I sat down with the Head to review my findings, I had to admit that I was impressed with the ICT provision and staffing. But that I still hadn’t a clue about who reported to who, or the logic behind the management of the excellent ICT provision I had observed. Another smile, and another great explanation followed.

‘I really believe that ICT can make a real difference to learning, and we have focussed on building expertise across the staff. As you have seen, we split the workload across many people, rather than heaping it on one poor harassed head of ICT. The word quickly gets out that we are a centre of ICT excellence. You get loads of visitors then, who all want to talk to someone important in the ICT at the school. Then of course your staff quickly get promoted to leadership roles in other schools, and you have to bring on new staff within the school. I quickly realised two things….’

‘Firstly, every time someone leaves it is a chance to restructure ICT leadership so that each member of the team can focus on their interests, and what they are good at, rather than having to meet a rigid job specification. You can redistribute the work to match their skill sets, and recruit new members that have the missing skill sets to rebalance the team. People can swap things around if they want. So the group of five divide up the work between them. This works far better, but you need to have vague job titles that don’t pigeon-hole them back into specific expectations.’

‘Secondly, I realised every visitor to the school expected to talk to someone important. I realised that is why the large IT companies have so many Vice-Presidents. So we deliberately came up with job titles that disguised any hierarchy, and made every visitor feel they were talking to a senior leader in ICT provision at the school. As indeed they were, with such distributed leadership’. More brilliance.

Sometimes you have to recognise that whilst you can observe and even capture excellent practice, the opportunities for scaling and sharing such practice will be minimal. Sure, they provided a rich seam of anecdotes, which I was able to share with others, as I do now. But I am not sure how many other schools will have picked up on those ideas and had opportunities to implement them in the own schools. But one thing I am certain of. The staff in those schools, who observed and experienced these subtleties at first hand, all received valuable lessons in leadership. These will have shaped their own leadership skills and strategies in their own subsequent careers.

One advantage of my longevity is that I actually got to see some of those careers in action, and could see the learning put into practice. Sadly, not all the schools initially involved succeeded after these leaders moved on. But the staff who had observed those valuable strategies all carried the subtle lessons learned forwards into other schools during their careers. It’s like blowing the heads off dandelions.

Blowing head off dandelion
Blowing heads off dandelions


Tony ParkinFormer head of ICT Development at SSAT, Tony Parkin is now a freelance educationalist, lecturer and writer. Follow Tony on Twitter here.