British ‘Heads’ Reign With Broad Power

By Robert C. Johnston — September 20, 2000 11 min read

Peter Hains looked out his office window in disbelief. A county education official had just told him there wasn’t enough money to hire a teacher to help disruptive students in the rural secondary school where he worked. And now, a team of county workers was arriving to pave his school’s parking area—costly work completed the previous year.

“I said, ‘Why? It’s already paved,’” recalled Mr. Hains, who is now the director of Bottisham Village College, a secondary school an hour north of London. Though the incident occurred 12 years ago, he remembers how it signaled the need to change. In no uncertain terms, he decided that “people here on the ground should identify priorities and invest the money accordingly.”

Mr. Hains may not have known it then, but a lot of other people in Britain agreed, including Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Under her watch, national standards and exams were adopted in 1988. To free school leaders to reach the new academic goals, Britain also gave them broad power over budgets and administration—a shift often debated, but seldom attempted, in the United States.

“We are not here to serve a bureaucracy, fill in forms, and ask permission,’' says Clive Bush, the head of Linton Village College secondary school near Cambridge. “I don’t ask for permission.”

—Robert C. Johnston

The system has remained largely intact under the Labor Party government of Prime Minister Tony Blair.

While some U.S. principals control large pots of money and make staffing decisions for their schools, many others can do little more than buy pencils and paper without district oversight. In England and Wales, where the changes by Mrs. Thatcher’s Conservative government took effect (Scotland has its own education system), school heads do all of that and much more, making them powerful and visible managers of their sites. Principals in the United States may flinch at the idea of taking on such traditional school district duties as payroll, budget management, and teacher recruitment, which their English counterparts handle. Still, Britain offers compelling lessons for U.S. educators and policymakers who look to school leaders as the linchpins of efforts to raise student performance.

Mr. Hains now chooses between a new teacher and paving the parking lot because his school has direct control over about 85 percent of its budget. Administrators across the country claim they’ve cut the time and expense of repairing schools, now that they can get it done themselves.

In the old days, as the story goes, the school that shouted loudest got the most from the central office.

Radical Shake-Up

“The government felt that the education system needed a radical shake-up,” said Michael Barber, a special adviser to Britain’s education minister. “They also thought if you devolve resources, you make it explicit what money is going to schools and what is funding local bureaucracy.”

To be sure, the new autonomy is not universally applauded.

While schools get most funds from the central government based on “the number of bums in seats,” it’s funneled through local education agencies, which in turn can shortchange schools, critics say. And while some student test scores have seen steady improvement, observers are not sure how much to credit decentralization for those trends.

But gaining the authority to manage their budgets has given school heads here a sense of control, in contrast to the powerlessness experienced by many principals in the United States.

“I’ve learned more about dealing with people myself, rather than having someone else doing it for me,” said Clive Bush, who heads the 800- student Linton Village College, a respected secondary school in the rolling hills near Cambridge. “We are not here to serve a bureaucracy, fill in forms, and ask permission. I don’t ask for permission.”

Mr. Bush, whose $3 million budget comes in three installments, also knows where the buck stops: “Staff sees that this is in my hands. If I blow it, I blow it. It’s my fault.”

Parents, teachers, and community leaders have historically formed boards of governors to oversee individual schools. It’s a role they still play.

But the two-pronged forces of accountability and decentralization have foisted greater demands and higher profiles on school leaders, who are commonly called head teachers. As the title suggests, head teachers tend to be talented teachers who rise to become their school’s instructional leaders.

In order to train current and aspiring school heads, the government has started several unprecedented initiatives, including opening the much-anticipated National College for School Leadership, which will open in November. “For people who embrace it, it is a very rewarding job,” Mr. Barber said. “But you have a lot of people in leadership promoted under an old system, who are not prepared when they get to the top.”

New Leverage

Sharon Hollows concedes that most of her fiscal skills have been learned since taking over Calverton Primary School five years ago. Hidden in the remote, hardscrabble, east side of London, Calverton was, at the time, one of the lowest-scoring schools in the country.

Morale was low, and teachers were leaving the first chance they had. “We were all over the tabloids,” Ms. Hollows said with a laugh. She didn’t take her challenge lightly, however.

One of the first things she did was ask teachers what was needed to turn the situation around. It wasn’t an empty gesture. Knowing Ms. Hollows had great sway over the school’s budget, the teachers asked for the resources needed to provide improved instruction, better training, and greater discipline.

Rather than sit on the school’s $200,000 surplus, Ms. Hollows hired a full-time teacher to cover classes while department heads monitored teachers. She upgraded technology so that those teachers had more detailed analyses of student performance. New classrooms were also built to lower class sizes.

The soft-spoken leader also reallocated money to pay teachers higher salaries. “I want to make sure I’ll never take cost into account when recruiting teachers,” Ms. Hollows said. “Some schools recruit new staff to save money. I trim elsewhere to make room.”

Because she can go elsewhere for legal counsel, staff training, and other county services, Ms. Hollows has the leverage to negotiate deals and demand high quality: “I often threaten the [central]office that if they don’t get their act together, I will contract out that service. We are clear about it.”

The bottom line is that the school’s 500 students, half of whom come from families poor enough to qualify for government-subsidized meals, have since catapulted to well above the average on national tests in English, mathematics, and science.

Asked if she missed the days when the job demanded less, Ms. Hollows responded with a decisively negative shake of her head. “I can’t imagine running a school without this kind of budget,” insisted Ms. Hollows, who oversees a $1.4 million budget. “You can spend money where you need the money.”

But other British educators are more critical of the changes that have been brought about by decentralization.

Carole Stroud has been the principal of the Ely Community College for five years. The 1,300-student red-brick secondary school sits in a handsome residential street that is a showcase of colorful gardens. The city’s 900-year-old Ely Cathedral is a mile away.

Despite the prosperous environment around the school, Ms. Stroud said she is seeing more crowding and more students with special needs. Many of the school’s students come from poor farming families in the outlying “fens,” once-flooded lowlands that were drained to create farmland. The students from those rural areas often require remedial assistance and other special services, Ms. Stroud said.

As the school’s enrollment has grown, class sizes have risen to an average of 30 students, compared with an average of 25 to a class 15 years ago.

While devolution has given Ms. Stroud more flexibility in her budget, she noted that national standards set the tone for much of her job. “The basic standards must be met,” she said, “so there is not as much of a choice.”

She also believes that it is impossible for her school to match the expertise once provided by the county office. Ms. Stroud’s real complaint, however, which is shared by other educators, is that while “we can have a bank account and decide how much money comes and goes, it’s only sensible if enough money is coming in.”

The National Association of Head Teachers recently found that local funding formulas leave some schools with twice the per-pupil funding of others. The same report added that the percentage of a school’s budget that reaches it after passing through local education agencies ranges from 76.2 percent to 88 percent.

Apologizing for sounding cynical, Ms. Stroud explained that now, when budgets are cut or programs trimmed, the blame is placed on school leaders, rather than on local officials who set each school’s funding formula. “The officials didn’t want to be culpable for reduced funding,” she maintained.

But Mr. Barber, the adviser to the education minister, countered that Britain has raised funding in recent years and will boost overall education spending by 5 percent each year through 2004. The increases will be even higher for areas such as school construction, which is a pressing need, he added.

In addition to their many new duties, English school heads also have learned to be entrepreneurial and to raise money for their schools. During interviews in several communities across England, school officials described raising money by manufacturing and selling school uniforms. Others provide their own meal services to students, sell catering services at community events, or teach courses for adults.

‘Huge Job’

Susan Wojotwicz, an administrator at Bottisham Village College, does pretty well by renting out the school’s dining hall four times a year for antiques shows. “The money helps us avoid making cuts,” she said.

Mr. Bush’s school, Linton Village College, turns a profit of $140,000 a year, which goes back into the budget for student services. Half the profit comes from charging the public to use the gymnasium and weight room—the best sports facilities in the town of 4,500 people.

About This Story

Jan. 12, 2000:
A broad consensus has formed among policymakers about the importance of school leadership.

Jan. 19, 2000:
New thinking has emerged among policymakers and researchers on what makes a school leader.

April 12, 2000:
Assistant principals spend most of their time on tasks far removed from the role of instructional leader.

May 3, 2000:
Schools, not university lecture halls, are seen as the proper training ground for future leaders. This two-year special project to examine leadership issues in education is underwritten by the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

Mr. Bush, who exudes as much energy as he does enthusiasm for British-style reform, added: “My job is more like being the head of a company, and that gives me more credibility in the community.”

If the British model of school leadership sounds like a lot of work, it is.

“The real downside to this is that it continues to be a huge job,” said Brad Portin, an assistant professor of education at the University of Washington in Seattle, who has monitored British reform for several years. “They are facing the same issues, like a shortage of principals, that we [in the United States] are.”

While school heads in England have ascended the education hierarchy in the past decade, the opposite is happening in local education authorities.

Much like school districts in the United States, local education authorities historically handled major administrative tasks, such as staff training, payroll, personnel, and school maintenance. They also processed paperwork, such as teacher advertisements and purchase orders.

As local schools take on many of those duties, either alone or in partnerships with other schools, some of the local education authorities are left scrambling for relevance.

Andrew Baxter, the director of the Cambridgeshire County Council, which is the education agency for 240 schools in the sprawling county north of London, has closed down his science-teacher-training division and released the employees who had processed purchase orders. While the agency has some mandated duties, such as providing special education, the demand for many other services no longer exists from local schools.

But Mr. Baxter and his staff are hardly sitting around waiting to be phased out. “Our service is better. We listen to what they say,” Mr. Baxter said. “We must be more informed and better knowledged than the schools.”

No Groundswell in U.S.

American principals seem scarcely aware of Britain’s major shift in school administration. If several interviews are any indication, there also is no groundswell of support for that style of change in the United States. Instead, U.S. administrators seem to like pieces of the British system.

John Lewis, the president of the National Association of Secondary School Principals in Reston, Va., admires the fact that his peers across the Atlantic Ocean can plan budgets three years in advance.

Most U.S. schools and districts must prepare one-year budgets by spring, before they know what will come from their state governments. “It makes long-range planning impossible,” Mr. Lewis said. “A long-range plan might be six to eight months.”

But Bruce Whitehead, the principal of the 1,200-student Hellgate Elementary School near Missoula, Mont., believes that payroll and other personnel functions should stay with the central office: “Anybody you talk to that thinks they want it has not been a superintendent or worked for payroll.”

Others see some modest but encouraging changes taking place as their own districts give more authority to schools. Oscar Abbott, the principal of Edward MacDowell Elementary School in Detroit, is enjoying new power to fill administrative spots, order school supplies directly from a vendor, and screen applicants for teacher vacancies.

Mr. Barber believes the main difference between British and U.S. schools is that there is no doubt here about who is responsible for student achievement.

“The issue for lots of education systems is which bit to make the unit of responsibility, such as the district or the school,” he said. “We make the individual school the unit. We give them the responsibility, flexibility, and hold them accountable.”


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