Reports this week of how a full-scale, administrative breakdown triggered the closure of Cheshire school Bollin Primary have shocked education insiders to the core. A couple of particularly startling articles (see here and here) dwelled on mobile-phone footage of a jubilant party thrown by Bollin’s teachers. Far from celebrating a collective achievement for the school, their knees-up was held to toast the rumoured firing of head teacher Michelle Brindle – widely disliked for her management style.
The toxic relations between Brindle and her staff – which forced 19 teachers to strike and four governors to quit – stemmed from her imposition of what were deemed to be draconian working conditions, typified by overwork and a rash of petty, internal rules (for example, a PE teacher was banned from wearing his kit outside the school gates). Brindle has fared no better with her pupils’ parents: 900 of them added their names to a petition calling for her dismissal, and their misgivings, combined with those of the staff, have left the school in limbo. Local authority Trafford Council has denied that Brindle has been sacked – but nobody could deny that she is now badly isolated.
How did it come to this? What’s the grim cocktail of circumstances that can spawn this level of antagonism towards a leader? Head teachers are often hired to enforce change. But how can a manager enter a new workplace with bold ideas – and a desire to put a distinctive mark on the job – while ensuring that they don’t end up mired in alienation?
Kate Cooper – head of research, policy and standards at the Institute of Leadership & Management – says: “When prominent educationalist Dame Kathy August spoke at a recent event we ran, she condemned the fallacy of a single, ‘charismatic’ – that was a word she particularly disliked – super-head coming in to change a school. I think the Brindle case is a symptom of that sort of mentality, where the governors, or perhaps even the local authority, have decided: ‘We need a superhero to sort this out and save us.’
“This doesn’t just happen in schools, but in banks and many other organisations. Isn’t it understandable that if people come in with the notion that there’s something a bit super about them – and that they are special, have been chosen, and are, to some extent, better than the staff they seek to work with – that at some point, friction will occur?”
Cooper adds: “If we at The Institute refer to our own values framework, then perhaps this head felt that she was acting in a way that was totally authentic to how she perceived her role, and the way she wanted to operate it. But our values also suggest that where she really failed was in her ability to collaborate – and take account of the fact that you can’t run a school by yourself. You’ve got to keep your staff onboard, and the parents, and the children. So collaboration should underpin everything she does, before she starts looking to achieve. And on that score, she’s failed miserably.”
For further thoughts on management in schools, check out this white paper from The Institute
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