Cultivating a shared leadership approach

shared leadership amongst middle leaders

Leadership in UK schools has evolved greatly in recent decades, with senior and middle leaders now both playing a shared leadership role in overseeing day-to-day performance and developing whole school policy and vision.

As traditional, top-down – in which head teachers serve as monolithic entities making nearly all decisions and instructing other staff – have given way to more modern structures, it follows that the burden of school leader responsibilities is increasingly shared between capable staff at all levels of the workforce.

The benefits of a more modern, shared leadership approach have been heralded by researchers and campaigners, who view the model as a way not only to boost school performance, but to ensure that these gains are sustainable in the event that a key, senior leader leaves.

Campaigners at the Shared Headship Network say that “shared school leadership will result in head-teachers with more positivity and resilience over the longer-term,” adding that the approach offers an effective way to battle the “headship crisis” that is “expected to worsen over the coming decade” across UK schools. 

A report published by the British Council similarly maintains that “sharing the responsibilities of leadership is essential for success,” urging: “School leadership is too complex to be left to one person, even in small schools.”

Corroborating these recommendations, researchers at the University of Worcester found both a promotion of “shared decision-making” and an insistence that “power and accountability [are] shared and distributed amongst members of the leadership team” to be among the key traits of school leaders classed as “outstanding.” 

Rather than developing leadership capacity in just a concentrated group of senior managers, the model of shared leadership focuses on creating a network of capable and contributing leaders across the school community, allowing schools to both ease pressure on individual leaders and increase employee engagement with school-wide goals.

By instilling a culture of shared leadership and encouraging staff across the workforce to take initiative in shaping the school’s vision and day-to-day priorities, schools can reap manifold benefits for performance: increasing teachers’ motivation and job satisfaction and strengthening relationships between staff and managers. 

Encouraging individual input

In order to implement a successful shared leadership strategy, schools are advised to prioritise the needs and skills of individual people in their workforce rather than implementing a rigid, process-driven management strategy. 

The development of staff skills is crucial to a shared leadership model, as each member of the workforce takes on their own role in advancing the school’s vision and performance objectives. 

Emphasis should therefore be placed on engaging staff with leadership decisions, instilling personal leadership skills and creating a united sense of school vision, rather than on imposing directions from a top-down perspective.

By encouraging staff to take initiative rather than simply wait for direction, schools can create a more dynamic and self-sustaining performance management model, in which teachers raise and resolve issues head-on and managers play more of a supportive than overseeing role.

Schools implementing this approach cite benefits including a reduction in staff turnover – reinforcing statistical evidence which suggests that teachers who are engaged to take control of their own performance are more likely to be motivated, content and effective at work. 

Engaging teachers in school policy and vision necessarily means including them as far as possible in shaping the school vision. 

Research indicates that a sense of personal contribution to an organisation’s overall vision is crucial to ensuring that workers are motivated by personal and school-wide performance objectives and take these fully on board. 

Despite this however, many institutions neglect to include employees in creating work performance goals for either themselves or the wider organisation, with a recent study finding that just 3 in 10 workers strongly agree that their manager involves them in goal setting.

In schools, senior and middle leaders should aim to encourage and incorporate as much input as is reasonable from staff, so as to drive worker motivation and build team unity. 

For some schools, using regular staff surveys to set the agenda of school focus for a short period can be helpful, with head teachers using these briefs to inform strategy for the next month or two weeks. Such exercises emphasise a sense of team-work and can motivate staff effectively. 

Consultation groups and other forms of input collection can also be effective ways to encourage staff contribution, with face-to-face brainstorming sessions providing the added benefit of face time between staff and senior leaders — making teachers feel that their opinions are valued and strengthening inter-departmental communication.

Investing in middle leaders crucial

Inherent in encouraging input from staff at all levels is an adaptation of the role of the head teacher and senior leaders. 

The British Council elaborates: “The sharing of leadership assumes that the school leader, the head teacher, need not have ready answers to all detailed questions about the school – but must have a colleague who does have the answers,” adding: 

“The headteacher’s mission is to create a team capable of supporting all aspects of the school which require development.”

Subject leaders and leaders of year-groups form an integral part of the shared leader model as staff working on the ground with pupils every day, and can be tasked with jobs such as observing, guiding and giving constructive feedback to other teachers, identifying issues that need addressing for further improvement and supporting the members of their team to ensure that they have what they need to perform.

To ensure the success of the model therefore, significant time must be invested into cultivating middle leadership skills, with teachers identified as potential future leaders receiving daily training and guidance from those in leadership roles before taking on their own position.

Responsibility should ideally be slowly increased rather than heaped on at one moment, to both avoid overwhelming staff and ensure that the system operates as efficiently as possible. 

Investing in middle leaders not only helps to achieve school performance goals, but provides extensive CPD opportunities for teaching staff looking to develop their leadership skills and strengthens the overall school workforce, creating a pipeline of experienced leaders within the school ready to take on positions of senior leadership later on.

Whilst subject and middle leaders take on more responsibility in directing school policy and performance, senior leaders must, in turn, take on more of a supportive role, communicating openly with leaders across the school to address any challenges and help maintain performance.  A more inclusive, team-based approach to leadership can help to not only unite staff throughout the school community but also create a school that is efficiently run and overseen at every level – with issues tackled as soon as they arise and performance aims put into practice on a direct, daily, small scale. 

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