This piece comes from an interview with Andy Buck, a former geography teacher turned headteacher turned leadership expert who has written multiple leadership books and now works with senior headteachers across the UK to improve schools and the school system.
Jamie Lawrence, Managing Editor, HRZone: Andy, could you go into any bad school and turn it around?
Andy Buck, former headteacher and leadership trainer:
I could, but whether I’d be the best person to do that is really interesting.
If you’re talking about going into a really bad school and turning it round, there are some people who are predisposed to that better than others, because you have to be able to live with chaos and poor performance for a period of time while you turn it around.
Schools are like oil tankers, especially secondary schools – they’re big ships that need to be realigned.
People talk of heads who go in and turn around a school in six months.
But all the research shows that in these cases, when the ‘hero’ head leaves, the school goes back to how it was before. And that’s why researchers are talking about architect leaders, who are building the long-term edifice that will enable the school to perform in the long-term.
And that takes time, and it takes patience, and it takes someone who can take the tough decisions at the beginning but then adapt their leadership style over time to become more democratic, more coaching in their style, whereas in the early days they need to be directive and pace-setting to make things happen.
The reason I’m hesitant about me personally is I’ve not worked in schools for nine years, lots of things have changed and I wouldn’t like to make the assumption that I could go back in and do that again, and I’m the type of person who likes things to be right and my brain can only live with the sort of chaos I mentioned for a period of time.
So I was perfectly suited to opening a brand new school: there was no site to begin with, no staff, no buildings, and that would scare some people to death. And every day for seven years we did something we’d never done before, and I flourished on that challenge.
Whereas for others, getting stuck into a mess suits their personality and predisposition.
So I do think there’s something in knowing your predispositions and knowing you have a good fit.
I know of some heads who have been really successful in one context and have moved to another context and have been judged to have failed by Ofsted, even though they had been leading an outstanding school previously.
So we need to be careful about making assumptions around transferability of skills, from time to time or from context to context.