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'Great school leaders apply growth-mindset theory to their staff, as well as to their pupils'

Teaching is about more than the end justifying the means. This is why the moral dimension of leadership is crucial, argues a leading educationist

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Discussion about the education White Paper has been conflated with concern about the Budget bombshell that all schools should be translated to academy status. But it’s worth noting that the narrow academisation directive and the broader White Paper agenda share a theory of school leadership.

The White Paper says a lot about leadership, but the term is defined very narrowly – in terms of headship (rather than leadership teams). It’s also valorised in terms of outcomes (the ends rather than means), and immediately measureable outcomes at that. Yes, tests.

There is a parallel with the way that teaching is viewed – as in the proposal that Ofsted should measure the quality of teaching through student outcomes, rather than through what are dismissively called “teaching styles”. The same view colours the way that leadership is conceived – in terms of outcomes, rather than styles.

The 'how' of teaching

Of course, the main focus should be on student outcomes. The question though, is what outcomes we value. If it is tests, then maybe the end justifies the means. But if the outcome we seek is defined more broadly, as a set of characteristics, attitudes and dispositions, the focus should be on the process itself, the how of teaching.

Teaching styles do matter. The same test results can be achieved in various ways – not all of which will help produce well-educated young people in the broader sense.

A parallel view, that great leaders produce great results quickly, ignores a crucial aspect of effective leadership, which can be explored by analogy.

Frozen fractals

Leadership has a geometry. Fractal geometry describes a repeating pattern that displays at every scale. Look at a snowflake magnified, and then boost the magnification – you see the same basic configuration. Branching river systems display this characteristic, as do clouds and even broccoli.

By extension, the quality of relationships in the classroom should be evident in every aspect of life in a school, from the top down. Great school leaders reflect and reinforce this, for example by routinely showing respect for others and acting as shock absorbers rather than amplifiers. They reflect it, too, by applying growth-mindset theory to their own staff, and not only to their pupils.

Moral dimension

Leadership also has a stratigraphy. Schools exhibit layers of leadership, but often power is highly concentrated at the very top. Strong leaders can get short-term results by the exercise of what amounts to a Nietzschean will to power. But sustainable improvement only comes about if leaders can convince rather than coerce the middle-leader stratum.

The school leader's role, among other things, is to set a tone, and the moral dimension of leadership is crucial. This is achieved by balancing authority with authenticity, and by recognising and respecting the difference between ends and means.

There is, in principle, no conflict between short-term student outcomes and long-term school success. But there is a time scale involved in any change project. And dangers arise when political and even career trajectories come into conflict with those time scales of meaningful educational change and sustainable student success.

Dr Kevin Stannard is the director of innovation and learning at the Girls' Day School Trust. He tweets as @KevinStannard1

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