In schools, as in sport, leadership is everything

In Sven-Goran Eriksson’s fascinating book about sports coaching, psychologist Dr Willi Railo says: “The mental culture in a group of people – be it a family, a football team, a company, or a nation – cannot be underestimated. The individual quickly adapts to the group’s routines, habits, conditions, values and use of language.

“Coaches can build winning cultures through their leadership. They must be a barrier-breaking role model who dares to take the lead, taking the entire team with him in a spirit of winning.”

It’s not hard to see why Leicester’s Fullhurst College, in special measures, is struggling after four head teachers in a year. Its latest inspection, which I’ve reported on today for Monday’s paper, makes for grim reading.

The biggest complaint is that more than half the teaching is inadequate. Teachers have not had sufficient opportunities to develop their professional skills, to learn from each other, to work out innovative ways to get a class’s attention. Some pupils at the school are badly behaved but – surprise, surprise – inspectors found that in the lessons where the teaching was better and more inspirational, the children behaved themselves and wanted to learn.

Teachers at the school are now being offered opportunities to develop themselves and get better. They’re not bad teachers, they just haven’t had that motivational opportunity before. We all need that.

But how does it happen that a whole school becomes made up of a large number of teachers rated inadequate? The answer surely is leadership. Any manager must realise that to produce the best results – in this case to create well-behaved, achieving pupils – they must inspire and develop their staff. As Dr Railo says: “A winning mentality must be encouraged by leading.”

I have no doubt that Fullhurst is now on the right track to success. David Kershaw, the head teacher who came out of retirement to pull New College Leicester back from the brink, has gone in to sort things out.

Just to speak to him for five minutes is inspirational. He’s well into his 60s and has every right to feel cynical and embittered about education, but instead, despite working in some of the country’s toughest schools, he’s upbeat, enthusiastic and, above all, motivational. After an interview with him, I come away wanting to do my job better, I can just imagine the effect it has on those directly under his leadership.

Good leaders are priceless. They know when to put their arms round someone, they know when to chastise them. I visit schools all the time and it’s incredible how they all reflect the person at the top.

A few weeks ago I visited Charnwood Primary School, the latest in Leicester to be rated outstanding by Ofsted. The head teacher was a wonderfully charismatic, forward-thinking manager, who said she put the development of her staff at the top of her list of priorities. Children as young as five spoke to me in the playground with confidence and enthusiasm.

I also visited another primary school about a different issue. I could barely get a word out of the 11-year-olds. I later spoke to the head teacher and he wasn’t a lot better.

Slowly but surely, Fullhurst will recover thanks to David Kershaw’s inspiration. It’s just a shame there aren’t enough like him to ensure schools in similarly challenging circumstances over-achieve.

Because as Dr Railo says, good leaders can “build a culture which can defeat adversity and do the unexpected – the theoretically impossible.”

About Ian

A journalist working in Brussels
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One Response to In schools, as in sport, leadership is everything

  1. Andrew says:

    One of the two biggest preconceptions I’ve had overturned in my time as a governor is how important a head’s leadership is – I’d always been more in favour of teamwork rather than the idea of a strong leader, but there’s no doubt that in schools an inspirational leader is necessary. The other preconception, unfortunately, was that the local authority’s involvement in schools is a good thing. I’ve known some truly amazing people who work for the city council, but at the top end inspirational leadership is completely absent and on balance schools would be better off running their own affairs entirely, with the LA having a lightweight coordinating and mediating role. We have an interim director of CYPS, yet again – I just had to look up his name, and whoever replaces him will be gone in a couple of years. When I started as a governor I went to talk to the head and she said “we have plans, but we’re waiting for the local authority to make some decisions” (Stephen Andrews, then). Eight or nine years later I’m chair of the governing body, with a new head teacher, and we’re still waiting for the local authority to make some decisions so we can improve the school.

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