Rethinking school leadership in the digital age

Being a Deputy Head is a tough job. They have neither the calm authority of the Principal (I know that calm is mostly acting) nor the ability to have a moan in the staff room. I remember my first day on the job, pulling a year 9 girl up for swearing at a teacher and getting the same four letter response myself. The stripes don’t always earn the respect.

Being caught in the middle, neither ‘one of us’ nor ‘the one at the top’ can bring with it tremendous pressure. Many deputies, on leaving the comfort of their department, can find the role terribly isolating and stressful. This is particularly the case when you’re internally promoted as so many deputies are. Renegotiating roles can bring with it great tension.

But this post isn’t about bemoaning the lot of the deputy: after all, they’re paid more than those they manage and there is a reason for that. It’s about examining their role and finding out if there are better ways of doing what they do. For in the school of the new millennium we need to consider everyone’s roles. I’m starting with the deputy because I believe their role has to change the most as we move into a new way of doing things in our schools.

In one of the schools I currently manage, a deputy recently told me that he does ‘all the jobs the Principal doesn’t want to do’. There’s an element of truth to that – the data crunching and analysis, the performance management of often large and disparate teams, the controlling of teaching quality, (attempting to) discipline recidivist year 9s: all important, and all a necessary part of a deputy learning how a school ticks. You don’t get that umbrella viewpoint when you’re a head of department or key stage. Suddenly you can see school systems for what they are, and realise both how limiting they can be and also how little you can do to change them. You begin to feel a little more sympathy for the deputy in your last school who pissed you off through his seemingly thoughtless decision-making.

By and large (and if the Principal is doing their job), the deputy controls either input or output. By that I mean teaching quality or pupil progress. To use the analogy of the sausage machine, the academic deputy controls the ingredients and the pastoral/progress deputy makes sure the sausages are coming out right at the other end. It’s important that the controllers of input and output talk to one another, as there is no such thing as a purely academic or pastoral role. However, I do believe there should be quality assurance of teaching, and a careful monitoring of the kids progress and wellbeing. After all, if you get great teaching and happy kids everyone wins. That should be the role of the deputy. No more, no less.

However, the common perception, which in many cases is founded, is that the deputy is there solely to make sure the teacher is doing their job properly (or to send the really naughty kids to). Let’s be honest: anyone who has been a deputy, or anyone who has experienced working with a deputy, knows there’s that ‘he’s only here to check me out, he doesn’t trust me, his role is to make mine harder’ feeling that exists between teacher and leader. It’s frankly inevitable however good the deputy is. And this is because the role is itself a product of a system which suggests that teachers cannot be trusted: that they somehow need to be kept an eye on, policed, cajoled into doing stuff.

But as anyone who has read Daniel Pink’s Drive will know, it doesn’t work. People do not respond well to coercion or being watched over. And teachers are the worst in the world at being told what to do. After all, why did we go into teaching in the first place? Because we are complete control freaks. Every one of us. And so some thirtysomething deputy who has read the latest book by John Hattie or Dylan Wiliam and who is trying to bring in yet one more innovation with lolly sticks or iPads, has clearly been put on earth to make every teacher in that school’s life a misery – even if the deputy in question is actually trying to make both teachers’ and students’ lives more interesting/relevant/efficient and ‘prepare students for jobs that don’t exist yet’ and so on. Oh, and to impress the Principal, of course.

It’s very different in Finland. In Lucy Crehan’s book Cleverlands, she writes about her month spent teaching in a Finnish school (one of five high performing countries she spent time teaching in over one year). What she noticed surprised her. Hierarchy is much flatter over there, and why? Because fundamentally teachers are trusted, respected, and paid well. We  can argue the toss over the current state of education in the UK and abroad, but what is more telling is that, even though Finland has seen a bit of a fall in recent years in the PISA rankings (due in part to an increase in economic migrants and a corresponding drop in language performance), it’s still up there with the Shanghais and Singapores in terms of overall outcomes.

And because teachers are trusted there are far fewer control measures in place. Performance management, lesson observations, inspections: they rarely if ever happen. What happens instead is that there is a far more rigorous process for selecting teachers, and far more weight placed on the importance of the profession within Finnish society. As a result teachers need less of an eye kept on them and so there is less need for the deputy.

What we need then are mechanisms to ensure teachers continue to do their utmost, to inspire and enthuse those they teach, but for this not to rely solely on an individual with a clipboard at the back of the classroom. If we take the Finnish model as a starting point, can we move towards a set of measures that offer more of a carrot than a stick, a set of pull rather than push factors? And if we do that, will the role of the deputy cease to be? I don’t think so, but I think it will, and should, change.

I want to start by turning my attention away from teaching and towards the new breed of user-rated e-commerce: eBay and Amazon in particular. Both work by allowing the end user to rate the product: with Amazon it’s up to five stars. When we shop, this is the first thing we look at: how well rated is it? eBay is even more driven by this – we will only buy from people who have as close to a 100% rating as possible. Sellers guard this so religiously that they will go to any length to ensure the buyer is happy. It creates a self-regulated system that by and large works very well and keeps both service and quality high.

If we bring that into the school we could get a very different approach to quality control. I know that some schools already do 360 degree appraisals, asking the students to rate their teachers: but what if every time a teacher taught a lesson, a student was able to give that lesson an anonymised star rating? If their lessons were linked to the sort of app rating that Amazon uses this wouldn’t be hard. Over time, a teacher would build a clear rating that they could use for their own professional development. Star ratings could be given for content, pace, interest, resourcing: it could be as granular as needed. If it was tied into my previous post (on goal-directed learning), students could see at a glance which teacher was highest rated for a particular topic, and could choose to take their class as part of their journey towards completing certain goals.

This would all but eliminate the need for lesson observations as every lesson would be observed by the end-users, the students. Concerns could be picked up on much more quickly as a sudden fall in ratings could trigger interventions from the head of department or more senior teacher. Performance-related pay could be tied into this as well: after all, if you are selling on eBay or Amazon how much you earn is very much tied into how well you operate. Why can’t it be the same with teaching? You could even extend this into inspection: if a school’s overall star rating fell below a certain standard the inspectors could be alerted.

I’m sure that many will be deeply concerned by the above suggestion, feeling that this is an unwelcome and unwarranted intrusion into the private space of the classroom and puts too much control in the hands of students. But I don’t agree. Our kids have grown up in a world where giving ratings to products and services is normal: why shouldn’t this be extended into our schools?

To go back to the topic of this post: where would this leave the deputy? Freed from the daily grind of monitoring, the deputy could instead turn their attention to improvement: to being the lead teacher, the expert, the one who keeps abreast of the latest thinking and works alongside the teachers to help all get better at their job. Not in an innovation-fatigue kind of way, but in genuine collaboration with his or her colleagues. Freed from the dual and conflicting role of policeman and coach, the deputy would be seen as a support rather than a big stick. Who knows, they may also have time to learn the very different role of the Principal, spending time shadowing their boss (as they should be doing) and preparing for the next stage in their career. Yes, there will always be nightmare year 9s, but at least the teachers would carry on talking when the deputy entered the staffroom.

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