Should Primary Headteachers lead by Pedagogical Example?

I was really intrigued by the Education Secretary’s recent call for more active involvement from headteachers in the implementation of Curriculum for Excellence (CfE). Although this was primarily aimed at secondary headteachers, it is my experience that a lot of primary heads could also be more active in the roll out of CfE in their schools. It’s all very well to attend meetings and seminars with Learning Teaching Scotland (LTS) and Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Education (HMIe) then come back to school and ask for various initiatives to be tried out and put in place. Because many heads and deputes (certainly in primary schools) do not teach, I feel they don’t always grasp the impracticalities and additional work generated by some ideas they hear in the lecture hall. Of course, secondary headteachers will be restricted to what they can teach depending on what subject they taught before entering management. As a primary school teacher and for the purpose of this discussion, I will be commenting mainly on some of the research I managed to find on teaching heads in the primary school.

Matthews (2009) discusses the characteristics of outstanding headteachers as school leaders and suggests that one of the important personal skills headteachers should possess is “modelling, leading by example, especially in teaching.” Webb (2005) carried out case studies in six English primary schools examining primary headteacher leadership. She focused on three different theoretical leadership models: educative leadership, instructional leadership and pedagogical leadership. The context of this research was against the backdrop of the introduction of the Education Reform Act (ERA)in England in 1988, but I feel that most of this research is relevant to how headteachers in Scotland could approach leading learning and teaching in the primary school. Indeed, there is research to show that there are many headteachers in Scotland who have to take a lead and teach in their schools and I have taught at a school where this happened. I will draw upon some of the research by Valerie Wilson to highlight the Scottish context of teaching headteachers.

Before 1988 and the passing of the ERA in England, many primary headteachers practised educative leadership. In essence they were involved directly in the teaching culture of the school, a working relationship with both pupils and teachers and a social work role with regards to the welfare of individual pupils to ensure a home life conducive to learning (Webb 2005). I would argue that many primary headteachers in Scotland still see this as part of their role or think that they continue to work this way.Instructional leadership can be considered to be a model of leadership influenced by central and local governments and other policy makers designed to bring about school improvement by establishing effective management structures and systems (Webb 2005). In other words, headteachers should not be concerned with educative leadership but focus more on administration and implementing centrally dictated policies and initiatives. Again, I feel that this is a model of leadership I have come across in my teaching career in Scotland. Take for example the pressures caused by HMIe inspections; meeting attainment levels, record keeping, self-evaluations etc all point to headteachers having to implement effective administrative procedures at the expense of being in the classroom to experience themselves the pressures and the enjoyment of being a classroom teacher.

Webb (2005:87) suggests pedagogical leadership as a third possible leadership model to overcome the prescription of instructional leadership. She does not advocate the combining of educative and instructional leadership but alternatively:

“…harnessing some of the routines and techniques of instructional leadership for their own purposes and interpreting these tasks in accord with the values and beliefs underpinning their pedagogical leadership.”

To me this means that headteachers should lead by example in the classroom as well as in the office. Certainly in larger schools, such as in my own context, the headteacher is supported by a depute and three principal teachers. In the age of distributed leadership, management tasks are further delegated to teachers and working groups. Can headteachers not organise their time more efficiently to allow them to spend some time in class leading learning and teaching?

Valerie Wilson (2008 & 2009) has focused her research on teaching heads in Scotland’s smaller primary schools. I began my career in a small semi-rural primary with 30 pupils located in the Central Belt. The staff consisted of the headteacher, two class teachers (with myself as probationer), two support for learning assistants and a part time administrative assistant. For a school of that size it was well staffed. As a probationer, I had 0.7FTE (full time equivalent) teaching commitment with the headteacher having to cover the remaining 0.3FTE contact time. Although the school roll was only 30, the amount of administrative tasks and paperwork demanded by local and central government, as well as the day to day running of the school (dealing with parents, cooperating on multi agency matters, staff issues), is just as demanding as it is in larger schools but with no management structure to fall back on. It is all on the shoulders of the headteacher. Wilson (2008:482-483) states that small school headteachers:

“… often have to act as their own janitors by turning on the heating, mending toilets, clearing leaves from the school playground, and opening the school – activities that would be eschewed by headteachers in urban settings.”

This was certainly true in my experience and time in the small school. On top of all these tasks, the headteacher also taught in class and did her own planning for that time. She had to be organised and manage her time effectively to allow her to do all these things. I argue that it must be possible in the larger primary school for headteachers to set a pedagogical example to their teaching staff especially in this time of flux and transition to CfE. However, I know that many headteachers are seconded for example, to local authority working groups or senior posts. Many act as associate assessors for HMIe as well as acting as tutors for student teachers for Initial Teacher Education institutes. These are all important roles and important for the headteacher’s continual professional development needs. Surely their first priority should be to the strategic development of their own school in term of raising attainment, developing staff skills and abilities as well as leading learning and teaching from the frontline of the classroom.


Matthews, Peter (2009) How do school leaders successfully lead learning? Nottingham, National College for School Leadership

Webb , Rosemary (2005) ‘Leading Teaching and Learning in the Primary School: From ‘Educative Leadership’ to ‘Pedagogical Leadership’’, Educational Management, Administration and Leadership 33, 69-91

Wilson, Valerie (2008) ‘The role of the teaching headteacher: A question of support?’, Teaching and Teacher Education 25, 482-489

Wilson, Valerie (2009) ‘Leading Small Scottish Primary Schools: Still a Unique Style?’, Educational Management, Administration and Leadership 37(6), 806-823