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Hard times call for brave leaders

"Hard times - tough choices: the challenge for leadership" is the highly appropriate theme for next week's annual conference of the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland. There is something of an Old Testament feel to this: while some of us remember the last "seven lean years", never before have there been such stark choices for education leaders at all levels.

How many realised we were in years of plenty and how good they were? Jack McConnell gave us the McCrone agreement, record pay awards for teachers and a decade of peaceful industrial relations; Peter Peacock gave us his vision and innovation directing resources towards new schools, and laid foundations for a new curriculum, early years and early intervention; the SNP administration, through Fiona Hyslop and Mike Russell, kept the momentum going, maintained the Curriculum for Excellence initiative and ploughed money into boosting teacher numbers.

Whatever the colours of the next administration in Holyrood, "hard times and tough choices" will be the theme. In governance and leadership, we face some immediate challenges. While an era of declining resources may see a decrease in legislation, some added value has to be exerted on education. The Scottish Government, one may assume, should be in a position to be far more directive in such hard times. Well, you can be if you are the Health or Justice Secretary, but not if you are the Education Secretary dealing with the local government concordat and no ring-fenced funds. This will be one of the "tough choices" to be made in 2011.

Since 1996, Scotland has had 32 very different authorities working hard to deliver local and national priorities for their local communities. In such hard times, a serious discussion needs to be had about whether Scotland can maintain 32 councils and 32 education authorities. It will be interesting to see if national leadership will be content to wait for marriages of convenience to evolve across Scotland, or whether it will take a more directive approach.

Some are already saying that learners face a postcode lottery, and no doubt parents will echo this view when the spending cuts start to bite. It is hard to argue against it, when we look at the spending options being considered. This will be one tough call for an incoming administration, but, whatever the decisions, I hope the needs of learners will remain paramount.

And what of our school leaders? This era will test their leadership qualities. For years there has been an over-reliance, fostered by heads and directorates, on upward advice, upward decision-making and upward responsibility. In such austere times, this has to end; it needs to anyway if devolution of resources and decision-making is to happen. The last national HMIE report pointed to concerns over leadership in some schools. Our system, in effect unchanged for decades, assumes each school requires its own head and that they all have similar duties and qualities.

This hierarchical and traditional system will be challenged, and I doubt it can deliver our new 3-18 curriculum and an integrated children's services agenda in the most effective possible way for all young people. Perhaps we should remodel our leadership structures around the needs of learners and their communities, and build up a local learning community model which delivers a 3-18 curriculum and support for children and young people in a more coherent way - which is a leadership challenge on its own.

And why cannot all schools, or groups of schools, in local learning communities be given charitable status? Imagine the boost to per-capita budgets this would create. It has always puzzled me why independent schools have this advantage over schools within the public sector.

Historically, times of crisis and need foster creative solutions. Our canny traditional approach has served us well for decades, but recent comparisons of our performance with that of other countries have caused some to wake up and smell the coffee. It is time to rethink some of the assumptions at the foundation of our current system.

Some would question whether children should begin formal schooling at the age of five and argue that we should look at practice in some high- performing countries where a later start, preceded by early-years investment of the highest quality, seems to work well. At the other end of the learner's journey, I would advocate a new approach which travels through the senior phase enabling the sixth year to become a means of reducing a four-year degree to three with benefits to young people, their families and taxpayers.

As 2011 approaches, we need to see e-learning solutions bringing not only new and enhanced curriculum choice for all learners, but also filling the gap caused by reduced staffing levels. We must understand that our young people are developing in a fundamentally different environment from previous generations, and that many come to school with well-developed skills shaped by an information era which is often not replicated in their classroom and school.

We must embrace an era where there is a range of educators of different backgrounds, skills and qualifications - all supporting children and young people through their learning journey.

Finally and crucially, we all need to consider the question posed recently by the Education Secretary: "Can a leaner education system be a fitter and better system?" Hard times do require tough choices but, most importantly, they require brave leaders to make them.

Bruce Robertson was director of education in Highland and in Aberdeenshire, 1998-2010. He is currently carrying out a one-year commission for ADES, funded by the Scottish Government.

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