chapter
8 Pages

Introduction: Headship is risky business

There have been a lot of books written about school leadership in the past few years. The vast majority of them talk about what good or effective or successful leaders do. The message of these books is that ‘this is how you do it’. There are a few books that are written by headteachers themselves or which feature lengthy interviews with heads; in these we read a personal story of trials, tribulations and triumphs in a particular school. Such narratives can end up being heroic tales of ‘I did it my way’, but in most personal accounts readers can almost smell, taste, and hear the everyday life of schools. There are also books which aspire to ‘tell it like it is’. These books are based on research. Two of the best known are Harry Wolcott’s (1973) pioneering The Man in the Principal’s Office and Geoff Southworth’s (1995) Looking into Primary Headship, both of which use extensive observation of a single headteacher at work. These research-based books share with the first group an ambition to have an impact on policy and practice, and with the second, a desire to present a narrative that ‘rings true’ to serving school leaders. This book falls into the third category. Its focus is unashamedly on head-

teachers and their everyday work. This does not signal advocacy of a model of heroic leadership or a return to ‘great man’ theories of leadership. It is certainly true that headteachers are not the only ones in a school who exercise leadership and that schools simply could not work if that was the case. But the way that leadership is shared is dependent on the head: through their use of symbolic systems and management structures, she/he can do things to make the school more, or less, democratic and more or less inclusive of others. And there is something very particular about the leadership/management expected of and practised by those in the ‘top job’. It is different in important ways from work undertaken by others in the senior management team, governors, heads of department and team leaders. This book focuses on these particularities and argues that the headteacher’s leadership/management is more than simply a way of doing things, it is also a way of being in and knowing about the world. It is a job with very particular benefits – and very particular costs. The book is based on my own experience of headship. It is in some senses

autobiographical, in that it seeks to bring to the fore aspects of headship that

the of data and text analysis accumulated over a decade. It is also inevitably idiosyncratic, in that it sometimes draws on an ongoing fascination with the way that education appears in news media and popular fiction, films and television. This latter interest is perhaps symptomatic of a former English (the school subject) teacher, but equally arises from the myriad of conversations I had as a headteacher with young people about what they were reading and watching and what it all meant. The purpose of the book is to highlight some of the contemporary pres-

sures, dilemmas and tensions that surround the headship. It is intended for readers interested in what is happening to relatively significant numbers of headteachers. Some will want to argue that not all heads are like these in this book, and of course this is true. There are very many heads who are happy, healthy and highly successful. I suggest that chance plays a part in these best-case scenarios: most heads are acutely aware that their good fortune is not all of their own making. Other researchers (e.g. Day, 2003; Leithwood and Day, 2007; Leithwood et al., 2006) are currently writing about this ‘successful’ group, and their work should be read in conjunction with this less rosy picture. This book is a deliberately selective view – as is all research. I am particularly concerned with those heads who are not always happy with their lot; this interest is not simply for its own sake, although that too would be acceptable. Here I am concerned with how particular aspects of headteachers’ work relate to questions of ‘supply’ (the diminishing number of applicants for headteacher posts) and ‘retention’ (the number of serving heads who leave their post prematurely). Since a goal of the book is to try to understand circumstances and events

from the points of view of those who experience them, both interview and some published textual data were subject to interpretive narrative analysis; that is, I looked for ‘embedded stories’ (Clandinin and Connelly, 2000; Josselson and Lieblich, 1995; Lieblich et al., 1998; Riessman, 1993). These were then edited in order to produce ‘voiced’ narratives which retain something of the speech patterns and lexicon of the interviewees (Britzman, 1994). I then selected from the larger corpus some ‘not a-typical’ stories. These are presented in text boxes (although Chapter 7 presents longer narratives within three ‘story’ sections) to signify that these are representations of the interviewee’s ‘voices’ (cf. Smyth and Hattam, 2001). Clearly, these are not ‘authentic’ (Winter, 2002), although I hope they do ‘ring true’ (Garman, 1994), particularly to headteachers themselves. One chapter (Chapter 3) relies on a detailed ‘content analysis’ (Silverman, 1993) of texts and I make use throughout the book of media articles which have been, like interview data, subject to narrative analysis. I also make extensive use of published research. Wherever possible, I have used research that heads themselves have conducted and/or commissioned. A comprehensive literature review underpins what is

I have some details of numbers and methods used in the statistical studies, and interested readers can pursue these studies further in order to critically assess their methodological ‘blank and blind spots’ (Wagner, 1993). Throughout the book, and in this chapter, I use the term ‘headteacher’

rather than ‘principal’. I am persuaded by the British argument that retention of the word teaching in the job title is significant, just as was the removal of the words ‘master’ and ‘mistress’ which implied that the job was somehow tied to particular gendered qualities and characteristics. While the term ‘principal’ is used in most parts of the world, and is increasingly used in England, the notion of being a teacher is important to the argument made in the text. The book develops a conception of the headship as ‘risky business’. This is

an argument that I began to make as I was leaving the headship. In 1997, I produced a discussion paper for the South Australian Principals Association which focused on the uncertainties faced by school leaders/managers at a time when school systems were increasingly calling for certainty via linear strategic plans and numerical goals (Thomson, 1997). A little later I decided that the notion of ‘risk’ (Beck, 1992) was an apt term for the reality and the ‘feeling’ of contemporary headship. At the time, I wrote that

[being a head was] now a risky business. As a group and as individuals we are increasingly placed in situations where we have to make difficult choices, where we have to manage multiple agendas and communities and where there are often no easy, right or quick solutions. Living and working in, and with, such uncertainty forces us to rely more and more on our own individual and collective resources.