I have some sympathy with the view expressed by Pauline Wood, the outgoing head of Grange Park Primary School in Sunderland, that some of her teachers “sit at home doing nothing” whilst others had come up with “the most amazing imaginative things.” I think there is probably a frustrated part of most heads that get this.
Firstly, it is mirrored in my own experience. I have been privileged to be involved with a phenomenal effort led by the directors of learning at the two schools that make up the academy chain of which I am a trustee. Speaking to both of them last week it was clear that they had led an extraordinarily passionate and detailed response to enable teachers to provide high quality learning to thousands of young people during the lockdown. A teacher I know and love very much has worked tirelessly to provide lessons to children in a completely different time zone, with all the consequent disruption of her sleeping patterns. At the same time I have had dealings indirectly with a primary school outside Milton Keynes whose teachers (and headteacher, I presume) have deliberately turned the parents into the teachers, and just sent them a list of things they could do around the house or online. There have been no calls from the school, no face-to-face online teaching, no reaching out to the most vulnerable, no welfare calls, no assessment (the secondary academy directors of learning mentioned above also found assessment a particular struggle), no assemblies or class meetings, nothing.
Secondly, as Becky Allen has often pointed out, the range of quality in teaching and provision within a single school is much wider than that between schools. This is well established in the research community and is another way of saying that a school has both outstanding and inadequate teachers at the same time, and certainly as a head, that was my experience. In fact, working with poor or beginning teachers and training them to become better ones was the core of my job, often the frustration of it, but also the love of it. So Ms Wood is technically correct to draw attention to the variation between teacher quality.
What intrigues me about Pauline Wood’s situation, though, is that she has been in her school for 15 years, has brought it from inadequate to outstanding, and still has teachers who she knows will be “sitting at home doing nothing.” Her governors have suspended her, which I regard as an action both rash and (possibly) indicative of the head-governance relationship. My sympathies are strongly with any head who has worked hard to bring their school to success: it is a tough job and requires a lot of toughness internally. But the fact that she knows she has this diversity – excellent teachers but also teachers about whom it is, in the words of Geoff Barton from ASCL, permitted for their headteacher “to give their perspective and insight to the public via the media” – tells me more about her than it does about them.
Where, for instance, are the leadership virtues of wisdom and grace? Where is the creation of community? Ms Wood has a reputation, according to the news reports, for no-nonsense, “relentless,” child-first leadership, and because I know some people of that ilk, I imagine that children are esteemed (in such a view) to the extent that teachers are seen as simple servants of the children’s outcomes.
I have spent the last year at York St John through my doctoral work arguing for servant leadership as the go-to leadership stance for heads of Church of England schools. One of the reasons I do this is because there is substantial research that says that if a head shows a servant heart and is a servant of her teachers, then the teachers begin to mimic that and find ways to be servants of the children. Further, there is a strong connection to the quality of servant leadership and the creation of learning community, and eventually, altruistic love. Another reason is that it provides a conduit for wisdom and, in focusing on the servant-enriched leader-led relationship, creates a home for grace and forgiveness.
Because I maintain that love – of God, of self, of others, of community and of the learning to hand – is the goal of all educating, then to me, servant leadership is not only possible, or available, but necessary. There are only really a few ways left to us as leaders to create the kind of learning community that God esteems. Slagging off your teachers in the media, I suspect, is not among them.