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A benchmark for leadership

Jim Rand on the standards that should be set for those who want to be headteachers

In September, more than 100 teachers will begin training programmes leading to the National Professional Qualification for Headship, the first recognised qualification in school leadership. Despite its title, this "national" qualification applies to England and Wales only. The teachers will be working in 12 regional training and assessment centres, which have been commissioned by the Teacher Training Agency. However, qualifications for Scottish heads will not be far behind. They have political endorsement, there appears to be in principle support within and beyond the profession, and the Scottish Office is consulting on a possible Scottish competences framework. But both the politicians and the profession should ca' canny.

The developments in England and Wales are a response to a particular set of circumstances and have taken a number of years to evolve. A decision to introduce qualifications north of the border should equally be grounded in a careful consideration of the particular needs of the Scottish system. Furthermore they should be integral features of a wider platform of support for career development. Elsewhere in the UK the management of schools has become highly politicised. The pressure to develop formal qualifications for headteachers is both a feature and a consequence of this process. Chris Woodhead, head of the Office for Standards in Education, asserted recently that in England one in 10 secondary headteachers and one in seven primary headteachers is "incompetent". In what Ted Wragg, professor of education at Exeter University described as the "shame and blame" culture created by OFSTED, the attraction to politicians of championing formal qualifications has proved irresistible. Such qualifications have a further compelling political quality. They are relatively cheap: they require a redirection of existing funds, rather than new money.

Since the 1980s, the operating assumptions regarding leadership and management in England and Wales, have altered fundamentally as a consequence of the stripping away of responsibilities from local education authorities, the growth in grant-maintained schools, highly devolved approaches to local management and greater powers for boards of governors. Governors have responsibility for "hiring" and "firing" staff, including headteachers, in addition to setting heads' salary levels. In these circumstances it is easy to see why school governors, as well as politicians, have been attracted to national qualifications.

In Scotland, we do not have to find a swift political response to the perceptions of the head of OFSTED. Nor at the local level, do lay school managers require formal qualifications in order to appoint and set salary levels. If they could be developed in such a way as to establish their credibility and currency there might be general support. However, it is not the qualification but the appropriateness of the training, support and development processes to which the qualification relates that should concern us. In the age of lifelong learning, it is an indictment of the education service that our models of career-long professional learning are so crude and ad hoc. What kind of experience, support, training and education are required to equip someone to operate as an effective teacher or headteacher in the 21st century? Clearly we should not simply adopt uncritically what others have done but we should be prepared to learn from their experience. In England and Wales, responsibility for creating a strategic framework has been given to the Teacher Training Agency. The framework aims to establish "clear, national, professional standards" - descriptions of the key functions, knowledge, skills and qualities - for particular professional roles. The standards developed to date include those for newly qualified teachers and "subject leaders" as well as those for "headship". There is clear recognition of the need to see particular training programmes as a part of a wider framework. Professional development, for headteachers and others in the education service, must be an ongoing process not a single event.

The "national standards" for headship that were published last year draw extensively on experience gained in management development in education and beyond. They acknowledge the criticism levelled against earlier attempts to describe management standards in terms of competences. Often based on a framework of competences and a portfolio record of experience and development, such approaches had significant weaknesses in the eyes of their critics. They were said to have focused too narrowly on the tasks and functions performed by managers; failed to acknowledge the importance of underpinning knowledge and understanding; been mechanistic in operation; created burdensome and unreliable assessment procedures; and failed to acknowledge the significance of personal qualities for effective managers.

Those responsible for the developments argue that they have taken account of these criticisms. In the standards, the core purpose of a headteacher is defined as to provide professional leadership for a school which secures its success and improvement, ensuring high-quality education for all its pupils and improved standards of learning and achievement. Refining earlier competence frameworks, 23 broad school leadership and management tasks are identified and organised into five key areas and tasks: strategic direction and development of the school; learning and teaching; the development and deployment of people and resources; people and relationships; accountability for the efficiency and effectiveness of the school.

The performance of these key tasks is related to a set of 15 "skills and abilities". The list includes such factors as being able to express and instil clear educational values; motivate and inspire pupils, staff, parents; seek advice and support as appropriate; prioritise and manage their own time. In addition, the new standards framework recognises that the specific knowledge and understanding required to operate effectively as a head will change over time. For the moment 12 aspects are identified as essential. These include such matters as "what constitutes good and high quality in education provision", "how to maximise achievement" and "the different influences - political, economic, social and technological - which have an impact on strategic and operational planning".

The Training Agency "standards" are helpful but they reflect the particular context in which they have evolved south of the border and could not be applied directly in Scotland. In any event, at a time when the education service in Scotland is coming to terms with the consequences for management and leadership of the reorganisation of local government, when the significance of appraisal is being revisited and when the role of the General Teaching Council is the focus of further debate, any discussion of qualifications for headteachers should be placed in a wider context. The current priority is to create a framework that will provide career-long development support for all education professionals in Scotland.

Jim Rand is an independent consultant who also works in association with the Scottish Authorities Management Centre, Strathclyde Business School, Strathclyde University.

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