Leadership through collaboration in small schools

Bookmark and Share

The development of leadership capacity through collaboration in small primary schools
By Dr Jeffrey L Jones, CfBT

The aim of the study was to explore the impact of collaboration across small primary schools on the development of leadership capacity. Despite a growing body of research on school leadership, little is known about its function and development in small schools.

Main Findings:

Factors Leading collaboration:

The first salient observation is that many of the participant headteachers saw school-to-school collaborative arrangements as an additional managerial burden, rather than as a strategic resource. Instead of helping them to solve key professional problems, ‘networking’ often added to the ‘chore’ of day-to-day management.

Underlying this sense of collaboration as ‘yet another item in the management in-tray’ seems to be a preoccupation with immediate managerial responsibilities. ‘Leadership’ was hardly ever mentioned by the headteachers.

That there was, and needed to be, a distinction between ‘leadership’ and ‘management’ never surfaced in the interviews. Instead, the headteachers spoke almost entirely about ‘managing’ the work of collaboration.

The focus on the operational aspects, and demands, of collaboration almost completely dominated their interview contributions. Their remarks were focused on the time taken, the financial costs, their geographical location, and the added workload. This held true across both counties.

Factors hindering and facilitating collaboration:

Typically, headteachers of small schools juggle teaching with management and leadership roles. It is apparent that headteachers felt that too much was expected of them in terms of management action and there was insufficient time for leadership. New collaborative arrangements did not typically allow them  to ‘work smarter’. Headteachers reported  that time pressures are often increased through the new emphasis on networking because of:

  • The need to travel, sometimes significant distances, to collaborating schools;
  • the additional organisational requirements, including setting up meetings, arranging professional development, and the need to report back to a range of interested parties.

The headteachers reported that increased funding tends to increase educational opportunities but they were also acutely aware of the demands being made upon them to demonstrate ‘value for money’. Collaborative activity was seen as a positive means of promoting efficiencies and of protecting small schools with otherwise inadequate budgets.

They acknowledged that sharing resources implied that savings could be made in the budget and that joint buying power allowed the delivery of better provision. It was accepted that special funding for clusters can facilitate development, but that there is always an insecurity associated with this form of funding.

Headteachers reported that this situation makes planning more difficult since it begs the question - how do we continue with worthwhile initiatives when the money runs out?

It was widely acknowledged that the range and complexity of skills demanded of headteachers to fulfil their role had increased and are no less than in larger schools.

Organising collaboration was viewed as an extra managerial demand on headteachers of small schools. It can appear that the set of responsibilities is continually added to but never pruned; the sheer number is in itself a major issue. With limited prospects for delegation, this was felt to be a growing pressure – perhaps the biggest issue amongst teaching headteachers. With a small staff, the impact of one staff member being out of school is magnified. Also, as there are a number of collaborative projects running concurrently each staff member is required to be responsible for several.

Geographical isolation was perceived to be part of the reason for the difficulty some schools have in appointing and retaining headteachers. This sense of isolation was felt more acutely by some new headteachers, but was reported to be a shared experience.
Collaboration was felt to help in making staff feel a part of a larger network. However, the geographical spread of the schools brought another concern to the headteachers in terms of the travel time involved in holding meetings and putting on activities for children. This served to exacerbate the challenges involved in collaborative working.

Conclusions and Recommendations
In their recent survey, PricewaterhouseCoopers (2007) described key features of school leadership behaviour as involving: shaping strategic direction and ethos; enhancing teaching and learning; developing and managing people; networking and collaborating; managing operations and performing accountability functions. They suggested that ‘some school leaders were more comfortable with an operational role rather than a strategic one’ and indeed that some ‘have an operational mind set’.

The main finding from the present study is that collaboration extends and intensifies the ‘operational space’. Almost exclusively, collaboration was discussed by the headteachers in terms of the time, money and workload involved. The expanded opportunities for teaching and learning were recognised and celebrated but the headteachers’ main focus and preoccupation was the sheer hard and extra work entailed in collaborating. There was no mention in the interviews of any other facet of leadership behaviour although ‘networking’ was obviously implicit throughout.

Several key recommendations are made here in the light of the evidence gathered from the research.

  • Schools and the local schools system should initiate and resource focused projects for building leadership capacity in small schools. The focus should be on younger teachers who do not yet have leadership roles.
  • Those responsible for the support andtraining of headteachers need to address the risks and potential problems associated with local networking, particularly the danger that it becomes another management chore rather than a means of releasing new resources for organisational improvement.
  • Generic courses such as NPQH and LPSH need to recognise some of the distinctive needs of headteachers of small schools, particularly with reference to strategic action versus managerial response.
    *Policy mkaers need to understand thecomplexity of policy relating to networking: there can be unintended negative consequences of school networking.

Read the report