Headmasters Team: an Unexplored Source of School Development

Anette Hedlin
Katrineholm Schools, SwedenJon Ohlsson
Stockholm University, Sweden

In Sweden, the education system is based on a decentralized model, whereby local authorities (municipalities) and schools have decision-making power and opportunities. The decisions are made in relation to a general set of goals, which are framed at the national level, and focus on among other things knowledge and skills for students. The local decision-making increases the complexity of leading schools, and many Headmasters (principals) experience that educational leadership is more comparative to leadership in other sectors of society. While the responsibility for decision-making is perceived by leaders as positive, it also reflects a paradox: many headmasters experience that the possibility to run their schools more freely interferes with their efforts to support the pedagogic development, requiring them to focus more on administration.

Research on leadership and organizational development is now reflecting this growing complexity, and suggesting ways to move beyond the paradoxes. According to organizational theorists, leadership appears as a central aspect of the development processes in organizations (Schein 1992). Traditionally leadership is associated with a powerful charismatic individual leader, but organizations of today place demands on a more communicative and process oriented leadership supposed to promote ongoing learning and competence enhancement (Day 2005). Consequently, an important challenge in attempts to develop organizations is to organise and strengthen leadership.

In Katrineholm, a community in Sweden, discussions have focused on how to strengthen the headmaster’s position so that they can also take a more active role in developing their schools. The aim of the discussion is not to reduce the complexity (because it gives the headmasters opportunities to work flexibly with their resourses) but rather to develop support systems for headmasters to balance the multitude of responsibilities in leading schools today. Incorporating perspectives from previous work and development in leadership and organizational theory, the Katrineholm Municipality has developed a professional support system, called Headmaster Teams, for school leaders, which builds on communication and decision-making.

The purpose of the headmaster team model is to create an arena for communication between headmasters locally and to support professional knowledge development and enhance the field of activities in the school. The premise behind the headmaster teams is that the communication/dialogue that takes place will ease decision making for headmasters in their own schools, as well as ease communication within the leadership group. The group work focuses solely on professional knowledge exchange and has no formal decision making responsibilities. It is anticipated that decision-making will be facilitated at all levels of the school system with this model.

During the past ten years, Katrineholm municipality and the Department of Education at Stockholm University, have cooperated in several research- and development projects. One of the areas of focus has been the cooperation between teacher teams and collective learning processes within these teams. The results show that collective learning is enhanced through greater reflection in teacher teams where the teachers were tightly organized as compared to teams, which were more loosely coupled. One conclusion is that a team organization potentially promotes collective learning, which in turn enhances teachers’ competence in the daily work.

This conclusion is further supported by the discourse on the learning organization, in which a team organization is described as one of the cornerstones in Senge’s view of the disciplines of the Learning Organization (Senge 1990). A team provides opportunities to talk together, and also to think together, which are central parts of collective learning (Ohlsson 2002, Isaacs 1993). Joint reflections and “team-think” as central parts of the communicative actions in the organization can be described as vehicles in the ongoing process of learning and development. Building on this work, we plan to implement a new project focused on Headmaster Teams and decision making at the leadership level.

This article introduces the project premise and framework, which will be followed over time. Of particular interest is the focus on a communication system to support leadership and school development, which we believe is critical for assisting decision-making. Moreover, the use of a collaborative model for development, between researchers and practitioners has proven useful in supporting greater change in past efforts in Katrineholm. We anticipate that the experience will continue to be developed in this project, providing insights into the importance between university and school-based development.

Organization of the Headmaster Teams

The Nursery- and primary schools in Katrineholm are organised under 22 headmasters. There is a head of administration that has the overall responsibility for the different educational activity fields, 22 headmasters and two unit heads that are responsible for their commission direct to the head of administration. During 2006, the headmasters were divided into headmaster teams. These teams contain headmasters from nursery- and primary school that geographically border each other and thereby have a flow of pupils from each other’s schools. The teams have no appointed leader, but one headmaster is assigned as the coordinator for one year, by the rest of the team. The team meets at least once a month. When they meet they discuss issues of common interest and decide strategies for their own cooperation.

With the purpose to reach the same goal and co-ordination within the organisation, the headmasters meet, together with the head of administration and the unit heads, three times a month in three types of leadership meetings: At the first occasion, they work in different drafting committees; one of them is the coordinators meeting with the head of the administration. At the second leadership meeting all headmasters are gathered to decide on a common action strategy (with the guidance of suggestions from the drafting committees). At the third occasion, time is used to education efforts for the whole group of headmasters.

Evaluation, research and development

Development, implementation and evaluation of the Headmaster Team model is conducted in collaboration between the Katrineholm school municipality and the Department of Education at Stockholm University. The project consists of three interrelated parts. The first stage focuses on development, which is concerned with an ambition to strengthen and promote the leadership and the leaders’ communication and competence enhancement. The second part focuses on the research activity, which is aimed to create new knowledge about team organization and collective learning processes within organizations. The third part focuses on the evaluation of the Headmaster team model, using a formative evaluation model. These three parts are interdependent and will inform both the project development and research continuously.

Of particular focus in the Headmaster Team model is communication, which is seen as one of the most important aspects of mutual learning and development. Therefore it seems reasonable to focus on how the headmasters communicate with each other and how the team organization supports collaborative learning. We contend that the structure of leadership needs to support a communication system that facilitate decision making about resource allocation in relation to the mission and goals of the school.

A prominent feature of the project is the interactive research model, in which the research and practical field development enrich one another. As such, the researcher and practitioners are engaged in an ongoing dialogue concerning what to do and how to understand what is happening. The researcher is not intended to be the person who has all the answers, and he/she is not responsible for the practical development. But he/she is expected to be a critical dialogue partner, which includes reflective talk and listening. The result from this interactive research effort is carried back to the headmasters in the form of critical reflections where new knowledge and essential research questions are created in dialogue.

This interaction makes it possible to use a variety of sources for data collection. Participative observations, more or less structured interviews and also open-ended questionnaires are examples of such methods. Among the questions explored are: “How does the headmaster team function in reality in relation to how they communicate with each other? Moreover, as we anticipate the evaluation will affect the communication process, new questions naturally emerge, such as: How does the knowledge develop from the ongoing evaluation affect the development of headmaster teams?

This improvement model raises pedagogical challenges, which need to be addressed. The researchers following the project have elaborated an “Organization Pedagogic” approach aimed at constructing knowledge about organizing processes as well as arranging interventions in practice. At the Forum for Organization Pedagogics (FOPe), located at Department of Education, Stockholm University, the researchers are concerned with issues regarding the development in and of organizations and the ways in which people organise themselves to develop social order, competence and identity. They posit that an important element in developing organizations is to strengthen the leadership.

The project is based on theoretical viewpoints that support the development of communication processes within organizations, as well as ongoing learning and competence development to strengthen leadership. Additionally, the project builds on the quality management model, and systems theoretical approach, which is based on the work of Bo Bergmans (2001) concerning total quality management. The fundamental part of the model is illustrated below. It is our belief that these elements reflect the cornerstone to support development of a learning organization.

Figure 1

Scenarios of the future

With the experiences from other municipalities and questions above it seems reasonable to identify three possible scenarios for team development in Katrineholm, scenarios connected with three critical organizational aspects concerning Culture, Structure and Competence:

  • The headmaster teams do not constitute an arena for communication in relation to the decision system. The headmasters do not communicate in matters relating to the gathered resources within the team. Matters that concern the gathered leadership within the administration are brought directly to the central group of leadership or head of administration, without communicative preparations in the team relating to decisions on there own field.
  • Informal power structures are developed within the team. Communication is not characterized of mutuality and recourse allocation is carried through by the dominating structure. Only those of the informal power structure “accepted” questions/matters reach the leadership group or head of administration. It is also possible that communication is withheld by the head of administration with the (unspoken) purpose to create autonomy for the team.
  • The team is developed into a common decision arena. Members make agreements which in reality means mutual responsibility for areas that are their own responsibility. Questions due to communication within the team always reach the leadership group or head of administration. At the same time it is also possible that the (unspoken) purpose of this communication is to create autonomy for the team.

It is of course possible that the teams develop one or several characteristics in these scenarios. The new structure for leadership work in Katrineholm municipal educational system, in nursery- and primary school has some interesting challenges ahead. With an interactive research effort we have an interesting journey in front of us. With our eyes wide open, interesting aspects, for our headmaster teams, during this journey will be to see how knowledge of communication affects us.


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