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Coached in a landscape for learning

Headteacher Jacques Chezeaud spent a week on Skye, piloting an innovative leadership programme for management teams

The course will not provide answers for you but it may make your work and your personal life easier and more manageable. So said the organisers at the Columba 1400 leadership centre in Staffin on the Isle of Skye.

It aims to help primary and secondary headteachers develop an enterprising culture in school by building self-confidence and self-belief. I was looking for an opportunity to refresh my approach to work and the promise of an "easier and more manageable" life was appealing. I signed up.

Before heading to Skye, the participants take part in a day of preparatory sessions on the mainland, including psychometric tests and a three-hour interview. These form the beginning of a focusing process on how the individual works and how we can change and improve what we do.

The next two days were spent at the Next Generation sports centre in Leith, Edinburgh, trying to change our thinking by doing and coaching. The technique is based on the GROW principle, that is:

* Goal (establish the purpose of the meeting)

* Reality (what is the situation like in real terms)

* Opportunities (what possible solutions can be found to the problem)

* Will do (decide on a plan of action).

We practised non-directive coaching in the context of sport, which was remarkably effective. The principles made their marks on us all and it was a revelation that coaching does work well.

It was less easy to transfer the technique to the context of personal coaching. The difficulty was to remain entirely non-directive, in particular to let the coachee reach the end of his thinking without interfering or suggesting possible solutions.

The drive to Skye was some 300 miles, but the landscapes were fantastic and the journey itself was part of the preparation process. It helped me to focus and reflect on the aims I had for what I hoped would be a profound experience. Any doubts about the logic of having a centre so far away started to fade.

The week was based on a process that included the principles of non-directive coaching throughout. It was an examination of the six key principles of the Columba 1400 centre - awareness, focus, creativity, integrity, perseverance and service - and how they apply to us as headteachers and leaders of our communities, as well as in our personal lives.

Each day started with a reflection on one of the six principles, in a tone similar to the one we use in our school assembly at St Joseph's. The activities were non-directive and gave an opportunity to look at our core values and reset our personal and professional aims and objectives.

The afternoons were dedicated to practical coaching and were an excellent opportunity to find solutions to issues I had left at school.

The days would end with a discussion. We would start with the theme of the day but were encouraged to explore our thoughts and feelings in the protected environment.

When Norman Drummond, the founder of Columba 1400 and former headteacher of Loretto School in Musselburgh, spoke to us, he was truly inspirational. He took us to the very essence of what we are as headteachers - in charge of nurturing young people's minds - and left us all refreshed and invigorated as I have never been on any management course.

He left us with three key questions to explore during our time:

* Who are you?

* Why are you living and working in the way that you are?

* What might you yet become and do with your life?

The second question had a resonance of the last Headteachers' Association of Scotland conference, when Walter Hume, the head of educational studies at Strathclyde University, encouraged us to concentrate on the essence of our job as leaders of our schools and communities and be more forceful in saying no to the unnecessary demands put on us from many quarters. Since I have put this principle into action, I can't say that my workload has diminished significantly, but I feel in charge of my own agenda.

Where do I go from here? I want to take a group of staff to Skye and get them to experience what I have experienced and get them to lead the way with me. I am also considering taking a group of students to Skye and getting them to be the ambassadors for real change for their peers.

Expanding the Columba 1400 principles as widely as possible and seeing how they work within the Christian ethos of St Joseph's College would be a fitting tribute to my revelatory experience on Skye.

Jacques Chezeaud is headteacher of St Joseph's College, Dumfries

Columba 1400, tel 01478 611400 e-mail

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