School & District Management

In England, Top ‘Heads’ Oversee Two Schools at Once

By Lynn Olson — July 30, 2007 7 min read
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Barry Day is the head teacher of the Greenwood Dale School in Nottingham, a school nationally recognized for achieving excellent results with high percentages of poor, minority, and limited-English-proficient students. But for the past year, he has spent at least part of each week at the nearby River Leen School, another secondary school with a similar population—but far lower performance.

His deputy head teacher has spent four days a week at the neighboring school. Two of his assistant heads work part time at the site, while other staff members have traveled back and forth.

The partnership between the schools is part of a initiative in England, known as National Leaders in Education/National Support Schools, which seeks to turn this country’s low-performing schools around by pairing them with successful ones having similar contexts.

“My hope for this initiative is that it will attract our most successful school leaders to demonstrate their leadership in our toughest schools,” Steve Munby, the chief executive of the National College of School Leadership, said in launching the program last year.

The first group of 68 NLEs, as the leaders are known, and their schools were placed on a national registry last fall as available to work with local authorities to support schools identified by the government as underperforming, or “schools in special measures.”

Signs of Progress

To become NLEs, head teachers—the equivalent of American principals—have to have achieved excellent results in their own schools, based on national inspections and tests, by working together with their faculty members. All of them have had prior experience in working beyond their own schools. And many have already worked to support schools in difficulty, sometimes by running two schools simultaneously, a practice known as “executive headship.”

“The aim is that the head and the school—the senior teachers, the administrative staff, the whole school—will be seen as a resource for the school in difficulty,” said Judy Barson, the manager for the program at the National College, “and help bring schools in challenging circumstances out of those circumstances.”

So far, the initiative seems to be working. Inspection reports for individual schools have cited the role of the NLEs as a key ingredient in school improvement. A more formal evaluation is scheduled to get under way this summer.

Exactly what the work entails varies from site to site, based on financial contracts drawn up between the NLE and his or her school and the local authority, roughly the equivalent of American school districts. The NLE may or may not, for example, become acting or executive head teacher of the client school.

The National College helps facilitate ties with local authorities, and it paid the first cohort of NLEs the equivalent of just under $10,000 each (less if they were not actively working with a client school) to help with networking and other activities designed to support the initiative. The money is not meant to contribute to the cost of providing leadership support to individual schools.

At River Leen, Greenwood Dale’s deputy head, Kelvin Hornsby, set up a joint project team of senior staff members from both schools to identify areas in which extra capacity was needed. Mr. Day even taught mathematics classes at the school, while his teachers worked to improve River Leen’s math curriculum and instruction and to develop a more robust data system for tracking student progress and setting performance targets. Teachers from River Leen have shadowed their counterparts at Greenwood Dale and participated in its training sessions.

Three Days a Week

In the city of Leicester, Hazel C. Pulley, the head teacher of the 480-student Caldecote Primary School, spent three days a week this past academic year at the neighboring Braunstone Frith Infant School, which serves about 250 pupils ages 3 to 7. While Ms. Pulley worked with the acting head teacher on strategic planning—looking at the budget, reorganizing students into ability groups, leading staff meetings to focus more on data—her administrative personnel worked with the school to improve its attendance records. Teachers and teaching assistants from both schools spent time together focused on instruction.

Though some NLEs are new to such work, for others it marks a formal recognition of work they were doing already.

As the head teacher of the 1,500-student Carlton Bolling College in Bradford, Nigel Jepson helped bring the secondary school out of special measures in December 2004. So it seemed natural when the local authority asked him to take over leadership of another low-performing school with a similar student population the following year, and run both schools. That school, the Rhodesway School, came out of special measures last December, while Carlton Bolling College was judged “outstanding” in its most recent government inspection.

Lawrence Montagu, the head teacher at St. Peter’s High School and Sixth Form in Gloucester, a Roman Catholic comprehensive school, was already running a teacher-preparation program for Gloucester and neighboring counties when he decided to become an NLE.

“We do an awful lot of working with other schools anyway,” he said recently, “so it was a natural progression for us, really.”

But Mr. Montagu emphasized that his role is to provide advice and guidance to the client school, not to replicate St. Peter’s. “You take into the school a vision of what’s made your school successful,” he said, “but do not tell them that’s the way to do it. I think to transport one school to another is a recipe for disaster.”

He and others also caution that for the program to work, the support school must have a strong leadership team that extends well beyond the head teacher.

“I think the first challenge, whenever you work outside your own school, is to make sure your own school doesn’t suffer,” said Mr. Montagu.

Mr. Day, for example, shares an office with Jackie Simpson, the senior deputy head teacher at Greenwood Dale. “The management of the school, if I am out of school, changes directly onto Jackie’s shoulders,” he said, “so it works very well.”

Greenwood Dale purposely promotes from within and gives its teachers opportunities to take on whole-school roles to prepare them for senior management. And Mr. Day and other NLEs describe the opportunity to work with client schools as a valuable learning opportunity for their own staffs.

“The deputy that’s working in one of our client schools at the moment has much more experience of being a head than he’d ever have gotten here,” Mr. Day said. “Jackie gets the experience of running this school when I’m not here. All of my senior staff members get the chance to work with the client schools. So there’s a whole package around retention and development that I think is second to none.”

‘Economies of Scale’

Mr. Jepson of Carlton Bolling College said of the NLE system, “There are many advantages, in terms of economies of scale, in terms of being able to get people talking together about similar issues so that they feel they’re not isolated.” But the setup also poses challenges, he said, including “the sheer logistics of being able to concentrate on two schools and feel that you belong to both of them, when you can’t be there 100 percent of the time.”

Nationally, the program has struggled to match NLEs with all of the schools and geographic areas that need them.

“You might have six schools in special measures in one area and maybe only two national leaders,” said Clarissa C. Williams, the vice president of the National Association of Head Teachers and the head teacher of Tolworth Girls School in Kingston-Upon-Thames. “There were also issues that local authorities were supposed to be involved in the process of identifying the schools, and they haven’t all signed up, so there’s been a variation in accessing the model.”

To address such issues, the next round of some 60 new NLEs, who were being selected this summer, will try to target particular geographic areas “to fill in the gaps,” Ms. Barson of the National College said.

“It’s potentially extremely energizing both for the system and for the head teacher who takes on that responsibility,” said Carole A. Whitty, the deputy general secretary of the NAHT, the largest association of head teachers in England. “It’s also highly controversial. And the question of how sustainable it is, I think, still hangs in the air.”

Mr. Montagu of St. Peter’s argues that for the program to work in the long term, schools must have staffing to make it easier for head teachers and others to work outside their buildings on a regular basis.

Despite such concerns, those involved in the program suggest it taps a deep desire among successful heads to give back to the larger community and to exercise a role beyond their own schools.

“It’s a moral imperative, isn’t it,” said Ms. Pulley of Caldecote Primary School, “that we shouldn’t just be looking at the pupils in our school. We should be sharing and caring and leading pupils in schools worldwide, really.”

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Coverage of leadership is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at www.wallacefoundation.org.

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