Heroes of SMT

May 31, 2008

In my experience most schools have one or two competent members of SMT. In a good school this is the Head and the Deputy Head. In a bad school it will be the Assistant Head in charge of PSHE and the Assistant Head responsible for The Sixth Form.

There are a few things that make a good member of SMT:

1) They walk the talk. They enforce the rules they expect you to enforce. They teach the way they expect you to teach. They don’t mind you observing their lessons. They don’t ignore trouble in the corridors, hide in their offices or ignore students who aren’t obeying rules concerning uniform or behaviour around school.

2) They are honest. They keep their promises. If they say they will support you in a lesson then they are there. If they say they will sort something they will sort it. If they don’t know the answer to a question they will tell you and get back to you. If they can’t get something done they say, instead of failing to do it and looking for somebody else to blame. They don’t use euphemisms, if a kid is out of order they will say so. If a job they give you is difficult they will tell you that. If a school is difficult they will tell you that, with no weasel words about how it will be better once you “build relationships”.

3) They are on the teachers’ side. They remember what it is like to teach. They don’t waste time trying to see teachers’ problems from “the other side”, whether that’s the students or management. They have a sincere conversation with the teacher about what can be done. Most importantly of all they are like this with parents. In their book a parent who is unsatisfied with the school needs to find a new school. There are no “personality clashes” and no undermining of staff.

4) They’ll get the kid. If you report a disciplinary incident they deal with it without trying to refer it elsewhere or to pretend it isn’t serious. They assume that if you have gone to them it is because it is serious, and because nobody else will deal with it.

5) They take responsibility. If they are there, then they are in charge. This is particularly important for things like supervising the canteen, or children on sportsday or a trip. There is no need to ask them for help in such a situation, they are looking for the problems and dealing with them.

Few schools have nobody like this, although some schools have so few that they end up overworked. What is rare is the situation where such a person is the headteacher. I have only encountered this briefly, but it is a joy. In particular there are some other qualities that the competent headteacher has:

1) They lead. Almost everything they do is their own idea, and they don’t care for consultation or debate. They will also make it clear what they want or expect at all times. You never have to ask what they want as they have already made it clear. Their aims are clear and non-negotiable.

2) They look for trouble. You find them in the corridors at lesson change over. They ask what the matter is if you look stressed. They intervene in as many incidents as possible, particularly if awkward parents are involved. They will take on new projects if they are likely to make a difference. They are never satisfied with the status quo even when accepting it would make their life easier in the short term.

3) They fight The Powers That Be. They will fight the Local Authority. They will ignore targets for exclusion. They will not ask what other schools are doing before taking on a new idea. They will pick a fight with anybody that interferes, and will rely on the school’s exam relults to let them get away with it. Not only that, but they do get those results. As long as they are in place the school’s results keep going up.

There’s a naïve idea that the best headteachers are the nicest ones. While I know that an evil backstabbing swine makes a poor head, a weak one is even worse. The best headteachers are ruthless bastards, but they are on your side and they are ruthless with dealing with problems, rather than in covering them up. We owe them a lot. I’d like to buy a drink for all the good secondary headteachers in England. (After all I’d probably get change from a tenner).


  1. I read this post and wished I’d written it. Wonderful stuff, and so so true.

  2. Thanks for the comments, and the link.

    I am keen to start some discussion here as to what makes a good member of SMT or a good headteacher. I feel that what teachers think on this issue is about a million miles away from what the Powers That Be seem to think.

  3. A fresh and worthwhile perspective on school management. I can agee with most of it, as long as the underlying values are about providing a high quality education for every child – that’s the non-negotiable. So much of what you’re saying here relates to personal integrity.

  4. I think your point 1 above about good headteachers is right on the money. Leadership is crucial to the success of a school. The establishment of a positive leadership ethos can spread throughout a school giving staff at all levels the confidence to take on projects and roles that they might not have felt able to do previously. This horizontal management structure succeeds because staff feel empowered to assume a real influence over the working life of a school. Good leaders recognise this and avoid the top-down management styles that stiffle enthusiasm, talent and creativity. Anybody can manage, but not everybody can lead…

  5. Interesting that you interpreted what I said in that way. In one way what I was describing in the good headteacher is “top-down”. The direction comes from the top and no argument is tolerated.

    That said I think you do have a point. The clear direction does leave people feeling that they can make even quite dramatic changes, as long as they are in the right direction. You feel you can be honest with your boss, because you honestly buy into what they are doing. You also feel free to think about what you are doing instead of looking for a pre-existing formula for action.

  6. […] about leaders has been fully covered on Old Andrews blog Scenes From the Battleground here and here, and he has much more experience in these matters than me. The TES forums to tend to support this […]

  7. I truly don’t know what our HT does all day – all year even. She’s never in school unless she has a meeting with someone not connected with this school, and then it’s in her newly refurbed office (we have a budget deficit….). I have never seen her have a dealing of any kind with a pupil. She does not teach even a token top set, she does not interfere in bad behaviour on the corridor. I have never known her to appear in the staffroom or even blitzkrieg a noisy lesson.


    I know what the Head of School does because I see him do it every day: he does stuff on his computer. The door’s open but don’t bother asking for assistance with a classroom problem because the kids are more scared of the dinner ladies than they are of him. The last contact I saw him have with a pupil involved said pupil calling him a “bald, fat c*nt”.

    I have never seen his assistant in a classroom. Or now I come to think of it, out of her office at all. This puts a tremendous strain on the two hard men we are very lucky to have in the deputies. The nature of the catchment however means that whenever there is triouble, they are ones most likely to be punched by a parent or pushed over by a pupil (just to pluck two examples from last term).

    Writing it down makes it seem much much worse.

  8. I hope the term ‘smt’ never reaches Australia as it is a misconception of what leadership in schools is. The best principal sees himorherself as the first among equals in a school.

    My last school has just got a new principal and he seems to be doing a good job in supporting staff. I actually taught with him in my first school in a poor suburb of Melbouurne 30 years ago, so I wish him luck. Here’s the story:

  9. That article is incredible. It is inconceivable that anyone in education here would publically praise putting fear into kids or even having a “moral compass”.

    The first would be seen as child abuse and the second religious fundamentalism.

  10. Knowing the Association of School Councils in Victoria as I do, I suspect that organisation’s spokesman could just as easily have meant putting the fear into teachers, but as I also know the school, having taught there for seven years until last year, I am told that David Finnerty is actually working well with staff; e.g., he has re-instated the Management Advisory Committee, which was abolished the year before last. But he is also expecting staff to live up to their responsibilities.

  11. I think that in my brief career I’ve experienced both the best and the worst of headteachers. The worst took our school into Notice to Improve. She rarely left her office and took no notice of spiralling discipline. She introduced TLRs a year earlier than she should have done and left the school in an appalling financial mess.

    The best came in a couple of years ago and distinguished himself by (a) walking around the school and ALWAYS being out on duty at break and lunchtimes. (b) keeping all staff informed of everything that was happening and explaining why it was happening. (c) delegating leadership across the school; giving Subject Leaders responsibility and accountability and ensuring everyone who wanted it could develop their career further.

    In essence the best Head will be the most visible one. Simple as that.

  12. […] and is approaching 1 million hits, we can adapt this to look at what makes SLT in English schools effective – and defective. What follows has been collated by asking many colleagues in tough schools […]

  13. […] Heroes of SLT Old Andrew […]

  14. […] or two criticisms of it, and demands for a description of what good SMT do (I did write about that here) the response has been great and it has been particularly good to hear SMT say they will use it as […]

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