Have you heard? It seems the best headteachers are architects – so what?

What a great piece of research! One that may well put a cat amongst the pigeons.

If you haven’t read it please do, it’s not long and is fascinating.

https://hbr.org/2016/10/the-one-type-of-leader-who-can-turn-around-a-failing-school

Here is a quick summary and some thoughts.

First up:

The research was based on 411, secondary, academy heads.

They found 5 kinds of leaders:

Surgeons, soldiers, architects, accountants and philosophers.

Interestingly there was common subjects that each had taught or studied (for example 85% of surgeons were PE or RE teachers).

Architects were the ones who had the best long term impact on results. If you’re familiar with Jim Collins research (author ‘Built to Last’ and ‘Good to Great’) there so seem to be similarities with Level 5 leaders who they found to be very successful leaders for long term success.

Surgeons (aka hero heads) got a quick short term improvement (usually by excluding failing students) but in the long term (we’re talking the next 3 years) results got worse.

Some interesting facts:

In 2012, out of the 34 OECD countries, the UK invested the 8th largest amount in education but came 19th in maths, 16th in reading and 14th in science.

This was the fact that really got me though:

‘Our findings suggest the Architects have the most positive long-term impact on exam results (on average, 15 to 23% higher than other leaders). Other research has found a 50% increase in exam results leads to between a 0.7% and 1.5% increase in gross domestic product (GDP), as better educated students are more knowledgeable, more innovative and earn more money.

If our findings are representative of the whole UK educational system and the relationships between exam results and GDP is consistent with previous studies, then finding and developing more Architects to make them 50% of all school leaders would increase the UK’s schools’ performance by 9.68% and its GDP by between $3.8 billion and $7.6 billion.’

Now that’s a big ‘if’ and I don’t know if architects did better in certain situations (were their schools all good? I imagine this was controlled for but don’t know for sure), but it’s a very interesting idea.

We focus on the short term

I know a lot of individual people and organisations don’t, but at government level we do – you’re only as good as your last set of results!

I watched the BBC newsnight report (20th Oct 2016) about this article and it was interesting to hear Sir Micheal Wilshaw talking about the Key Stage 3 ‘lost years’ and how secondary heads are focusing on KS4 and exams. Now I like Sir Wilshaw, I think he’s done more than few good things, but this made me laugh as I exclaimed to my husband ‘What do you expect them to do when their head is on the block if results dip and their budgets are being cut?!’

Aside from the clearly great skills of an architect, they need time to work their art, and our system is not a giver of time. Every school leader knows what happens if results drop – the pressure is on. And I’m a fan of our children doing well at school but long term, sustainable success, is not a quick fix. A few years is not too long to wait for these results.

What does this mean?

For me there are 2 key messages:

  • Stop focusing on the short term and get more meaningful and better measures in place. If we task our school leaders to get great results then we can expect short-term sticking plasters followed by years of students who are failed; and the research show we’re clearly rewarding these heads more than any others (up to twice as much in salary and some formal recognition such as an MBE).

We make heroes of these people and that’s not fair to anyone, including them, because this about winning the league (and the silverware) for one year. Education is about long term, sustainable impact.

And it seems there’s a nice GDP boost to go with that as well as, I suspect, happier human beings.

  • The skills of the architect are clearly good, perhaps we do want more of them, but let’s not fall into the trap of thinking there is one leadership style which is best. I’ve read a lot on leadership theory and there have been times when it’s been thought one leadership is better than others, but the truth seems to be that: it depends. And whilst certain styles might have the edge I think what is more important is to develop leadership skills, utilising information like this, to create well-rounded leaders who are able to adapt and succeed in a range of situations.

They’re my thoughts, what are yours?