Doing Distributive Leadership as a Headteacher

Posted on June 2, 2015

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This is my first ‘doing’ post as a Headteacher, but I thought it was about time to begin looking back at what has been going on at Canons since I took a hold of the reins last September.  In fact, the aim of this post is to show how I have tried not to take a hold of the reins at all.  Instead it focuses upon how I’ve tried my hardest to rein in my own eagerness on taking up the role of Headteacher and to hand over the reins to others.  In short, it’s about distributive leadership.

At this stage I would forgive you for switching off and going to read some other blogpost.  Having spent my last substantive post picking up on ‘leadership clichés’, I’d forgive you for thinking that this is just another one of them.  I’d forgive you because in far too many cases you’d be right.  Distributed leadership (note the -ed and not the -ive at the end of that key word) has become a catch-all term for too many school leaders that at best means little more than ‘delegation’ and, at worst, is a synonym for ‘trickle-down Ofstedism’.  In fact, so sullied has the term ‘distributive leadership’ become that it is tempting to try and re-brand and reinvent it as something different.  But I can’t and so I won’t.

Instead what I want to do is show how I’ve been trying to do ‘distributive leadership’ this year (and for some years previously) and let you decide whether I’m as deluded as the rest or whether there just might be something in the concept worth saving from those who have abused it so badly.

From Leadership Team to Leadership Teams

 

SIP

As a Deputy Head, I persuaded the then-Head to let me set up a sub-group of SLT focused solely upon improving teaching and learning, the Pedagogy Team.  Initially comprising myself and two AHTs, it was literally a sub-group of SLT, but as time went on we involved our Pedagogy Leaders (TLR holders given responsibility for the ‘big picture’ of CPD) in the Pedagogy Team. They needed to be able to influence the big decisions that impacted upon their ability to deliver their own approach to INSET and they were more than equipped to make a difference to school policy. It was a much better way of doing things for them, and for me because it brought the classroom as experienced by staff on a full timetable load to the heart of my leadership responsibilities. 

So, my first decision as Head was to extend this same autonomy to my Deputy Heads. The diagram above shows the three teams within my SLT, with a DHT leading their own teams (Students & Achievement, Curriculum & Pedagogy, Partnerships & Professionalism) and having overall responsibility for two priorities of the six that make up our School Improvement Plan. To ensure that the teams had this autonomy, I made the decision not to sit on any of them (perhaps the hardest thing of all for me this year, because watching their work from afar has been wonderful but has made me wish I were in amongst the thick of things). I still influence things in a threefold way, through line management of the DHTs and Business Manager, through weekly Team Leaders’ Meetings with them all and through the wider SLT meeting which all three teams feed into. But they are not my teams and I sometimes feel a little lost that I’m not in them. 

As the year has gone on, these teams have developed their own identities and we have worked to develop things around them to ensure that they, not me, are the key drivers of school improvement. We have aligned each team with the committees of the Governing Body, have given each team a half-hour slot on the main SLT meeting agenda, have moved SLT meetings to once per fortnight so the teams can meet in directed time (rather than using lunch breaks or before school time to do so) and have sought to move responsibilities around so that the agenda for each team is as coherent as it can be. 

Widening Participation in Whole School Leadership

Alongside the decision to create three teams, I also wanted to make sure that more staff contributed to Canons’ school improvement work than the nine people who make up our SLT. In particular I wanted to utilise the relatively untapped potential of our support staff, who number 53 of our 126 members of staff but of whom only one had previously influenced whole-school policy and practice. 

For this reason I took the winning formula that was our Pedagogy Leaders and revamped it so that instead of six teachers focused on a single area of our work, seven members of staff would be spread across the three leadership teams. Renamed as Grassroots Leaders, we kept two as pedagogy-focused and introduced three to focus upon achievement and two to focus on partnerships. We recruited our first cohort last year, two from support staff and five from teaching staff, and each works alongside members of SLT (and some middle leaders) writhing their leadership teams. 

Over the course of the year these Grassroots Leaders have had more influence on the work of these teams (and the direction of travel of the school) than the Headteacher. Each has presented their work at SLT meetings and to whole staff meetings or INSET, and one member of support staff has impressed so much as a Partnership Leader that she has been seconded as Associate Senior Leader for the 2015-16 academic year.  This week I am knees-deep in ‘preliminary interviews’ (a replacement for letters of application that we have introduced this year to ensure nobody spends hours along writing up thoughts that don’t quite hit the mark) for our second generation of Grassroots Leaders. In total, eighteen colleagues have applied for these posts and I don’t relish having to choose between them, even though I am being helped by five current of former Pedagogy or Grassroots Leaders who are part of the interview process. 

Of course, with so many potentially disappointed colleagues who want to play a role in the leadership of school improvement, the pressure is on to ensure that there are other pre-GL opportunities to impress and each of the leadership teams has been asked to identify ways in which to make this happen. This year we have reconvened our OPP group (rather embarrassingly, for a school that has removed graded lesson observations, the O stands for outstanding, but nobody pays that limiting judgment too much heed at Canons anymore) to lead our research-focused, free choice TLC groups. We have also appointed a number of SLEs and, unlike in many other Teaching School Alliances, we have already begun using them, not as a quasi-consultants being pimped out for a day here or there, but as a part of our alliance architecture working for free. There’s more to be done on ensuring opportunities for all according to their level of desire and their areas of expertise and interest, but more we will indeed be doing. 
 

Breaking Through Glass Ceilings

A third strand of our distributive leadership has already been hinted at in the course of this post, getting more out of our amazingly committed Support Staff (I’m trying my hardest to ban the phrase non-teaching staff and look forward to the day when we can simply talk of School Staff). It has been a goal of mine since 2008 when I was Acting DHT at a former school with responsibility for staff matters. I had plans drawn up for the start of the following year which went unimplemented as I changed schools, but which have remained with me until I was in a position to put them into effect as a Headteacher. I couldn’t wait any longer. 

I spoke recently to a colleague at another school about this ambition and they told me that they were keen to do the same thing, but were starting with changing the ethos of their school before embarking upon substantial changes. This approach isn’t what we’ve done at Canons. As much as we want to get ethos right, our view has been that putting our money where our mouth is was the right way to go, and too long overdue action (nationally as much as institutionally) had to be the tail to wag the ethos dog. 

Hence the ring-fenced appointment of two Grassroots Leaders last year and the extension of this ring-fencing to three of the seven posts this year.  And hence the creation of a ring-fenced Associate Senior Leader role for support staff to balance the similar secondment we have offered for the previous three years. Hence also the decision to open up Heads of Year posts that became available this year (from two internal promotions) on a non-ring fenced basis to all staff at the school. Previously, support staff could only become Assistant Heads of Year and teachers were not able to take up those roles. And finally, hence our decision to equalise the remuneration rates between support staff R&R allowances with teaching staff temporary TLR allowances. 

Alongside this focus on action, we have been working hard behind the scenes to get to grips with the ethos thing, starting with our professional appraisal and line management systems and processes. The two had been ‘equal but different’ in the past, but of course it is the ‘different’ part of that equation that is problematic to the ‘equal’ part. Oddly enough, the main driver for the work we have done has been the decision to remove Ofsted headings from teacher (or, more to the point, teaching) effectiveness judgments. With these gone on the 1st September 2014, there were no real barriers to a Staff Effectiveness system, ‘equal and equal’. 

As we were locked into a new performance appraisal cycle, we decided to take our time to develop a new system throughout the year. Much work on this has been done by our Professionalism & Partnership Team, including a subgroup of support staff, led by our Business Manager and Attendance Officer (one of our Grassroots Leaders) who visited a number of schools that have gained a reputation for the strength of their support staff HR processes. 

There’s a lot to come from Canons on this real issue of equality across schools nationally and within our own, but we are off to a good start. In the coming year we will introduce our new Staff Effectiveness procedures, change contractual arrangements so that some support staff can become form tutors and will continue to view all new posts as being for all staff unless they absolutely have to be done by one or the other. What follows will come from the staff themselves, but the direction of travel is now a little clearer. 

Conclusion

I started by saying the distributive leadership has taken a bit of a battering recently (haven’t most things that were part of the National Strategies) but that I remain wedded to the concept. There are four things that I think are needed for a school leadership team (and perhaps most importantly a Headteacher) to pay heed to if they wish to be considered to be truly distributive. 

Autonomy – Individuals and teams in schools need to be given their head to pursue whatever they feel need to be done to achieve the priorities of the school, and to shape those priorities for the future. 

Agency – Once individuals and teams have established their autonomous goals they need to be allowed to simply get on with it, learning from their own successes and their own mistakes along the way. 

Accountability – Truly distributive leaders don’t merely abandon individuals and teams to their autonomy and agency, regardless of the consequences, but provide platforms for critical evaluation of the ongoing work from a range of perspectives, modelling the ethics of ‘constructive feedback’ to re-shape, re-direct and reinforce as appropriate. 

Trust – Distributive leadership empowers individuals and teams through trust. As Headteacher of Canons I often feel like I’m playing one of those trust games with my colleagues, falling backwards in (relatively) sure and certain knowledge that they will catch me. It takes some courage on my part, given how great the fall could be, but only of a fraction of the courage they show on a daily basis in making sure that they catch me. They, too, fully understand and appreciate the consequences. 

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