Robust School Leadership – Risks and Rewards

Posted in : Cassidy's Comments on 29 November 2022
Frank Cassidy
Former Principal & Regional Officer of ASCL
Issues covered: Leadership; Wellbeing; Bullying

With much debate in the media just now on ethics in public life and in particular with accusations of bullying levelled at government ministers and leaders in top jobs, it is appropriate to reflect on how these impacts on our schools and how they are managed.As in the world of politics where high-profile roles come with intense public/media scrutiny, school leadership roles come with high expectations from parents and education authorities in terms of delivering results. Over the last decade pressure for closer monitoring and evaluation of classroom teaching in pursuit of greater accountability has often resulted in friction between teaching unions and school leaders around classroom observation and many of the cases reported of teacher unhappiness with senior management are around this issue. 

So how robust are school leaders expected to be with staff to achieve continually increasing success criteria?The charity, Education Support is an advocate and lobby group in support of the wellbeing and mental health of school staff. They quote a survey carried out by the NASUWT in 2019, whichstates that four out of every five teachers said they had experienced bullying at work. The point is made that while bullying and harassment can take place in almost any workplace, education staff are particularly at risk. Seventy per cent of cases reported involved a headteacher or senior leader. The survey also identifiedupward bullying’, where senior staff are bullied by junior colleagues as an issue. Education Support suggest that bullying is especially prevalent in education because the work is uniquely high-pressured. The never-ending cycle of high-stakes inspections and test results, combined with continual change, under-resourcing and crisis situations, can create an atmosphere of stress and blame where bullying becomes commonplace.  

Eleanor Bradford, former BBC Health Correspondent in Scotland gets right to the heart of the dilemma writing in 2019 when she says; 

So, we are left in a position where it is essential that managers feel empowered to address poor performance without facing counter accusations of bullying but we also need mechanisms by which employees can feel protected if they are being unfairly victimised… and ….good managers ensure their team know what is expected of them, have regular conversations on progress and credit their staff for great work. They acknowledge that they are not perfect and foster an atmosphere where the whole team is part of a common mission”. 

When I worked for The Association of School and College Leaders, I found myself part of a community of professional school leaders including serving heads and past headteachers like myself.Working and talking with these colleagues was an invaluable source of first- hand expertise of the practical problems and issues around these kinds of headship dilemmas. The Deputy General Secretary of ASCL at that timeMalcolm Trobe CBE, is now Chair of the Review Grouplooking at how school leadership has changed since the 2015 standards and tasked with developing a new set of standards to help inform future leadership training like the professional qualification for headship (PQH). They have gathered evidence, examining what leadership standards were used in other jurisdictions and professions, and also research about successful leadership of schools.  

As part of the review the group looked at what used to be called the ’hero’ approach to school leadership but quickly confirmed what we all know that in today’s world this approach would place impossible demands on the individual in charge. Then they looked at the idea that good leadership had generic characteristics and should therefore be transferable to many different types of management in various work settings. While they found that there are some things common to both schools and other contexts, they concluded that the complex activities of leading a school made that leadership role unique. They highlighted, for example, that headteachers must uphold public trust in school leadership and maintain high standards of ethics and behaviour as leaders of their school community and the profession. They pointed to theNolan Principles’describing Standardsin Public Lifeand described the headteachers’ role as being accountable for upholding their obligation to give account and accept responsibility for what goes on in the school. 
Read more on ‘Setting the Standard’ from ASCL here:  

The review refers to the current government guidance on Headteachers’ standards 2020and quotes it as stating that the headteachers’ standards outline the ethics and professional conduct expected of headteachers. As such, they consist of statements that define the behaviour and attitudes which should be expected of headteachers.They confirm the need for rigorous adherence to the Seven Principles of Public Life at all times. Known as the Nolan principles, these form the basis of the ethical standards expected of public office holders, namely; selflessness; integrity; objectivity; accountability; openness and honesty;  

Good school management practice in line with these principles therefore dictates that articulating a vision of excellence, consulting with staff and securing agreement on a way of achieving improvement is the only ethical way of leading and managing. The robustness must apply to the vigour with which this process is taken forward, rather than to over directness in interactions with staff. However, moments will still arise when headteachers will have to address intractable poor performance and this inevitably results in unhappiness. Even when the approach above allows a school leader to explain that the required improvement is “what was agreed during staff consultation” and that the role of the manager is to,“monitor the delivery of agreed, required school policy and plans”, we still arrive in situations where individuals perceive this as unacceptable criticism of their professionalism and even bullying. There remains an unresolved gap between the improvement asked for of schools by government and agreement with teaching unions on acceptable management strategies in pursuit of these by the school leaders whose obligation it is to deliver change. Senior managers are as usual left to try and square this circle as best they can. 

This article is correct at 29/11/2022

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Frank Cassidy
Former Principal & Regional Officer of ASCL

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