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If You Want to Get Ahead Don't Get a Superhead - Says New School Leadership Research

Originally Published 25 February 2002

Superheads have failed to address the needs of schools facing extremely challenging circumstances according to new research by Professor Alma Harris of the University of Warwick's Institute of Education.

Her research on schools with a past history of poor academic performance indicates that simply imposing a ?Superhead? from another school, often fails, in the long term, to solve the majority of the school?s problems. More importantly, it can serve to demotivate other staff from taking any ownership for development work because they see they this as being chiefly the responsibility of the head teacher. Hence, most decision making is left to the Superhead who may find it difficult to devolve real leadership tasks and responsibilities to others. While having a heroic head may seem to be a neat short term solution, there is relatively little evidence to show that this succeeds over time unless staff are fully involved in decision making and are empowered to lead.

In a paper just presented by Professor Harris and her co-researcher Christopher Chapman at the International Congress on School Effectiveness and Improvement in Copenhagen, she outlined her work studying ten schools in challenging circumstances. All these schools had a normal succession of head teachers rather than opting to select a ?super head? and yet the majority of these schools were able to achieve a modest but steady improvement in academic standards. Seven of the ten schools improved by an average annual increase of between 4% -21% at GCSE between 1999 and 2001.

Professor Harris found that the head teachers in these schools followed a strategy of "Distributing Leadership" involving teachers in decision making and giving leadership responsibility to others; they led from the front but also empowered others to lead recognising the limitation of singular leadership to sustain improvement over time. Although the heads tended to concentrate on teaching staff in the first instance, they used similar approaches when dealing with governors, parents and to some extent, students. Their collective view was that the head teacher was necessary but not sufficient for sustained school improvement and that teacher leadership was the key to success over time.

An example of how this was done is most evident at Four Dwellings School, Birmingham where head teacher Mr Smith created a "School Improvement team" who together transformed the schools exam results moving from only 5% obtaining grades A-C at GCSE in 1998 to 26% attaining grades A-C in 2000 and winning the school and award from Government for its "substantial improvements. His Improvement Team involved support staff as well as teachers. The leadership of the school was also greatly assisted by its Governors and close support by the Local Education Authority and the interest and involvement in the school of a key major locally based business ? Cadbury.

The research conducted by Professor Harris found that school improvement was most likely to occur in schools where head teachers employed the following strategies:

  • distributing leadership to teachers
  • investing in the emotional development of the school
  • involving the local community
  • changing the environment of the school
  • generating positive relationships among parents, pupils, staff and governors focusing on cultural rather than structural change

For further information please contact:

Professor Alma Harris, Chair in School Leadership

Institute of Education, University of Warwick

tel: 024 7652 2186


Mr Bernie Smith, Headmaster, Four Dwellings High School

Birmingham tel: 0121 4220131