Headteachers’ role has ‘changed enormously’

​​​​​​​Heads should put more trust in teachers than in the past and keep sight of the big picture, says leadership expert

Henry Hepburn

Headteachers’ role has ‘changed enormously’

The role of headteacher has “changed enormously” in the past 20 years, according to a leadership expert responsible for national professional development programmes.

She has also called on heads to show more trust in their staff than in the past and to avoid getting sucked into managerial tasks that obscure a school’s priorities.

There has been an “enormous shift” whereby heads are, for example, far more aware now of national policy rather than being consumed by day-to-day demands in schools, according to Gillian Hamilton, Education Scotland’s strategic director for professional learning and leadership.

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Ms Hamilton, a former primary school headteacher, said in an interview with Tes Scotland that “we actually need headteachers to be engaging in policy development, to be critiquing and challenging policy”.

This is a “big part” of Scottish leadership programmes such as Excellence in Headship – designed for heads in post for two or more years – but, added Ms Hamilton, “When I think back to when I was a headteacher [she was first appointed in 1999], I didn’t have that level of policy critique.”

Ms Hamilton was formerly chief executive of the Scottish College for Educational Leadership (Scel) until a surprise announcement in 2017 that it would become part of Education Scotland, the national curriculum development and inspection body.

The experience in these roles has made Ms Hamilton reflect that, in some ways, she would do things very differently if she were a headteacher now.

“I would prioritise my own learning much more, thinking about the areas that I was less strong in and that I would have needed development in, and I would have found a bit of time to do that,” she said.

She added: “[As a headteacher] I thought my role was to do the professional learning to others – I thought a big part of my role was to plan a professional learning calendar…I would bring in speakers and actually I kind of developed that in isolation [but] if I was a headteacher now I would hope I would have the confidence to hand that over to a team.”

Ms Hamilton continued: “As a headteacher, you think you know your pupils really well – but the teachers know the people they’re working with even better…The teachers knows what’s really important for their young people, they can develop that professional learning.”

The role of head was more “sink or swim” 20 years ago, believes Ms Hamilton. “You really did your learning on the job” and were less attuned to policy and pedagogy developments, she added.

“I was much less aware of the bigger picture – I was much more focused on local knowledge, developments and learning,” she said. “I’m struck when speaking to a group of heads how aware they are of a national context – that has been an enormous shift.”

A big part of leadership programmes that Ms Hamilton’s team is responsible for – such as Into Headship, which will become mandatory for all aspiring heads in Scotland from 2020 – is helping school leaders keep sight of “strategic” priorities.

“You know what works best for your young people, you know what your staff community need to focus on,” she said, adding that “in last 5-10 years of Scottish education, we’ve got much better at that focus”.

Otherwise, she says, “there’s a danger that the managerial part becomes a much bigger focus”, that heads can become sidetracked by bureaucracy.

She recalls computers being installed in her school in the late 1990s and “being excited to log in at the end of the day and see if anybody had sent you an email” – now, keeping up with emails can dominate a school leader's day and “it’s really easy to get caught into”.

Ms Hamilton has heard of heads fielding complaints that they are slow to reply to emails, which she believes reveals an ignorance about the demands they face.

“Often there’s an expectation that heads are some kind of business administrators,” she said, adding: “One of the things we’ve held strong to in Scotland, which I think is really important, is that headteachers are leaders of learning, first and foremost.”

Ms Hamilton believes that the idea of leadership as the apex of a hierarchy is changing fundamentally – certainly in Scotland – and her definition of a leader is very different from that more traditional view.

She said: “It’s about building really strong, positive relationships with the team you lead, the community you work in…but beyond that it’s also about an ability to influence and decide in an informed way, so that those you’re working beside and leading have confidence in you.”

Ms Hamilton added that “it’s not leading in isolation or [about] what we do to others – it’s about working with others” and moving away from the idea of “hero” headteachers who save the day by their force of will.

Ms Hamilton believes that Scottish education is marked out by the importance it places on teachers’ professional learning, which can be traced back to the seminal 2011 Donaldson report and the 2000 McCrone report.

She said that “not every country recognises that teaching is a really complex profession and that it needs high-quality professionals”, rather than seeing teaching as a “craft” in which you learn skills and then “pick up a toolbox” that will last your whole career.

In Scotland, she said, teachers see professional learning not only as an “entitlement” but also as a “responsibility”, and it was widely understood “that in order to be a really good teacher you need continued support for your own learning – you don’t just learn to be a teacher, then you graduate”.

This constant refinement of skills, Ms Hamilton added, made it less likely that teachers would become jaded as there was less chance of feeling like you were simply doing the same things in your job year after year.

In 2017, many were surprised when it was announced that Scel was to become part of Education Scotland.

Yet, despite some initial concerns, Ms Hamilton said that the “challenges of being a small, agile organisation coming into a bigger organisation” were not as problematic as had been feared.

The concern that innovation might be stifled had not come to pass, she said. She added that being a larger organisation provided support in areas such as HR, communications and finance, which had taken up “an enormous amount of time” when Scel operated on its own with a team of 12 at most.

Ms Hamilton said she was “worried” initially that the new set-up might “get in the way of the work” of Scel – but, two years on, she is adamant that “it hasn’t”.

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Henry Hepburn

Henry Hepburn

Henry Hepburn is the news editor for Tes Scotland

Find me on Twitter @Henry_Hepburn

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