Hill and Laker’s second piece of research into school leadership caught the headlines this week leading to reflections on what makes an effective head (having an RE degree and receiving relatively low pay are two possible conclusions). Their research is particularly damning of the concept of the ‘Superhead’.
The term Superhead was used in the late 90s by the New Labour government who, having promised to prioritise education whilst remaining within strict spending limits, were desperate for a cheap policy initiative. Every Secretary of State for Education since has clung to the hope that it is possible for one person to transform a school as such a scenario offers an alternative to investing in education through taxation. It is this hope which has led individual Superheads to be befriended, lauded and awarded honours by politicians.
The very first Superhead, Torsten Friedag, concluded that the policy would not work in his school without the expulsion of 50 children and, when prevented from doing so by the governing body, resigned after a year. He was followed by a series of super heads who did expel very large numbers of pupils. One Superhead excluded pupils in his first two days for not lining up properly, not wearing a coat and refusing to finish lunch. Alongside large scale exclusions, Superheads who failed (and there are a remarkable number) shared range of strategies which included recruiting their own family as staff, spending money on themselves, imposing a new school uniform, running up large debts and defrauding the DfE. A few Superheads commited fraud (for example fiddling attendance figures)for the sole benefit of their school but even an act which is well-meaning takes resources from other schools. The only person in British history to be stripped of the title Dame was a Superhead.
The idea of the Superhead is rooted in the discredited Great Man Theory of leadership (apt as heads and Superheads are disproportionately male) By this theory, Superheads are a breed apart who are born with specific gifts that enable them to transform schools. In another field, it is a theory that businessman often believe about themselves and therefore is covered at the beginning of MBA courses.
That the theory is long discredited, and that the evidence continues to mount against the policy, will hopefully give the current Secretary of State pause for thought. The idea of the multi academy trust with a very highly paid CEO is in danger of perpetuating the policy Hill and Laker’s work shows to be damaging to education in this country.
The reality confronting politicians continues to be simple and expensive: the only way to improve education is to improve teaching and parenting. Sustained improvement comes from expertise, investment and teachers finding the balance between knowledge and skills underpinned by trusting relationships in the classroom. There are no shortcuts. Superheadship, academisation and grammar schools are all a distraction and, in the long run, false economies that suit short term politics but wreck children’s learning and life opportunities.