Teams in schools

Team design

Compared with many organisations, schools are unusual in the lack of flexibility they have in creating teams. Many commercial organisations are designed around teams that are created for specific purposes and then disbanded. In such teams there is a very high correlation between the purpose of the team and its membership, that is, the team is designed and is ‘fit for purpose’. Very often in schools the membership of teams is determined by the longevity, status and experience of its members rather than their aptitude and ability.

There are obviously very powerful examples of alternative deployment of teams with flexible membership and a short-term specific focus. In their study of approaches to high performance across a range of organisation types, Hargreaves and Harris identify teams as an important contributor to ‘performing beyond expectations’:

QuoteLeaders who perform beyond expectations build powerful teams that connect vertical and lateral leadership to produce much better results. The team knows exactly what it has to accomplish and is motivated by high degrees of internal collaboration. Cricket teams spend many hours off the field in the pavilion together, where a long-standing captain with known presence is an invaluable asset. Burnley Football Club expects the players in its sparse squad to be able and willing to play in many different roles and positions… The schools in our study have strong records in growing leaders from within so that teamwork brings tangible rewards as well as symbolic ones.Quote Hargreaves & Harris, 2011, p11

Schools may use what are sometimes called 'task teams' or 'project teams', which are brought together for a specific task, for example the school improvement plan or the development of a new approach to literacy, and then disbanded when the task is accomplished. Staffing of these teams may be on the basis of expertise (for example, devising the school timetable, developing a continuing professional development (CPD) strategy or reviewing facilities for staff).

Team effectiveness

Crucially, and for very good reasons, leadership teams may invest very little in their own development as teams: they are task focused rather than process focused. Team leaders inherit their teams with little or no scope to change or develop the members. There are few opportunities for the team to develop as a team and limited time and space to explore potential and build capacity. However, when teams are working effectively they can have a very significant impact on school improvement:

Quote…in schools where the leadership and management of teaching and learning are judged outstanding, self-evaluation is sharp and accurate. Senior leaders draw on a range of evidence to arrive at this understanding, probably the most significant of which is their own direct observation of teaching and learning. Where weaknesses are found in teaching, they are dealt with rigorously and effectively: outstanding school leaders can provide examples of teachers whose performance has improved enormously. All available data are analysed carefully and this analysis provides a good basis
 for early intervention with pupils and for planning individual and whole-school programmes to improve teaching. In these schools middle leaders are often
 a significant strength and have a strong sense of their accountability for the progress of pupils.Quote Ofsted, 2011, p64
Smart folder and diary with paperwork showing

The importance of teams in schools

The challenges that face schools require an investment in the capacity and sustainability of leadership in schools, since one person can not possibility encompass all the knowledge, skills and qualities that schools need to function. While the role of the leader remains vital it may be that it is through teams that leadership is best given expression in the school. This implies an acceptance of the concept of shared leadership, and teams offer a powerful vehicle for putting this into effect, as this Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) extract demonstrates:

QuoteResearch has shown teacher co-operation to be an important engine of change and quality development in schools. TALIS shows that teachers who exchange ideas and information and co-ordinate their practice with other teachers also report more positive teacher–student relations at their school… Positive teacher–student relations are not only a significant predictor of student achievement; they are also closely related to teachers' job satisfaction.Quote OECD, 2009, p122

If it is true that leadership behaviour is a crucial determinant of school culture and climate then effective teams would seem to be essential, because they:

  • are probably the best way of securing consistent improvement across the school
  • model best practice for the rest of the school
  • enhance communication and effective relationships
  • maximise the leadership and management effectiveness of the leadership team
  • demonstrate, in a real way, the school’s commitment to the development of every individual
  • build leadership capacity and potential through succession planning
  • offer the potential for greater creativity and better utilisation of skills and knowledge

Practical task

Links to school improvement

Task 1

How clearly is the link between the work of teams or departments and school improvement established in your school?

  • For example, which policy documents set this out?
  • Are there clear strategies that support its communication?

Task 2

How do you make this link clear to your team members?

  • Itemise the main written means you use.
  • How well do you think these communicate the relationship?
  • What do your team members think?
  • Could the link and their role be made clearer and, if so, how?

Record your thoughts.

Teams as models of effective practice

In essence, any team has to exemplify all that the school aspires to be. It has to model, demonstrate and exemplify the values and vision of the school so that others can understand how a principle is translated into practice. This is a highly challenging remit; a counsel of perfection, but it is also pragmatic: if the leadership team does not convert the abstract into the concrete, who else will? If there is an effective leadership team in a school then there is the possibility of developing high-performing teams throughout the school.

There is a real issue, found in all organisations that use teams, that not all teams are equally effective and that the senior leadership team may not be a model of effective practice. This can create real tensions. How far is the middle leader able to compensate, mitigate and respond to what might be a challenging environment? Two professionally appropriate responses seem to be available. 


First, to cite Steven Covey (2004, p65):

If I really want to improve my situation I can work on the one thing over which I have control – myself.

In other words, take control of the things that you can control. Team leaders can ensure that they lead their teams in appropriate ways, that meetings are run on a business-like basis, deadlines are met, policies are observed and within the team there is a clear commitment to improvement. This is difficult but in the worst case, a laissez-faire culture does mean that best practice is as possible as poor-quality leadership and management. The other option is to develop supportive relationships with other teams and to mutually reinforce effective practice and create a culture that is consistent with the school’s values in spite of the prevailing climate.