Reflective Conversations with Headteachers: Exploring the Realities of Leadership in UK Secondary Schools
Marshall, Patrick Arthur
The aim of this practitioner research is to explore and analyse how headteachers reflect on their own professional practice to help them sustain themselves and improve secondary schools. The research has two aspects: the first is an action participative enquiry between 2006 and 2009 into the realities of secondary headship; the second is an analysis of the significance of reflexivity in other headteachers and the participant headteacher researcher. Whilst there is a significant literature concerning school improvement and leadership there is very little of a longitudinal nature which examines the experience of secondary headteachers in depth. Therefore this research has significantly enhanced that body of knowledge. It is also appropriate in terms of professional practice as the government increasingly empowers headteachers to be free from the collaborative structures of Local Education Authorities. This (almost) four year study of seven secondary school headteachers within the same metropolitan area takes the form of 25 extended conversations between practising headteachers who established strong “conversational partnerships” (Rubin and Rubin, 2005 p79) over the study. The analysis from the data identified how headteachers sustained good practice in their schools and how they formed co-coaching or mentoring relationships with one another over time. The research is characteristic of a social constructivist tradition. It generated rich, qualitative data gathered through the use of interviews, the participant researcher’s field notes, Ofsted inspection reports and “naturally occurring” material. The research identified a range of themes in the area of school improvement common in the literature such as the importance of focusing on teaching and learning and appointing the ‘right’ staff. It also confirmed much of the existing research in the field of school leadership. It established that these headteachers readily engaged in reflexive practices which impacted positively in supporting the individual professionals and their schools. The research also identified the existence of meta-reflection (Burge et al., 2000, Watson, 1998b) in an educational setting. A definition of meta-reflection would be a type of reflective practice used by of Headteachers in a professional ‘power neutral’ context. It is commonly found in the analysis of headteacher dialogues and requires the passage of time for Headteachers to reflect on these dialogues which allowed allow some headteachers to access a reflective state which supported their professional sustainability and improved their decision making. This ultimately had a positive impact on their schools. The research found that all headteachers reflect on their professional practice at an operational level. It also found that they all were able to be reflexive almost to the degree of co-researching with the participant researcher headteacher. Finally a majority of the sample were also able to use meta-reflection to help then process decision making in their schools. Existing models of leadership (Bush 2011), research analysis (Layder 1993) and reflexivity (Archer 2007) have been used and adapted to illuminate meta-reflection in the headteachers in the sample and to re-define “authentic” headship in this context. This study is relevant not only to headteachers but also to policymakers and educationalists interested in how to improve schools over the long-term and sustain the workforce of headteachers in a manner which benefits all stakeholders.