Charter: “A formal statement of the rights of a country’s people, or of an organization or a particular social group, that is agreed by or demanded from a ruler or government.” Cambridge Dictionary.
Given the definition above, the recently published A Headteachers’ Charter For School Empowerment from the Scottish government is an interesting manifestation. The fact that it was almost hidden away within a bigger document, An Empowered System, tells us something of where the much-trumpeted Headteachers’ Charter now lies within the much-diluted change agenda of Scottish education policy. And it is not helped by being liberally sprinkled with the new buzzword coming out in every Education Scotland and Scottish government document: “empowerment”.
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The thing about empowerment for me is this: can true empowerment be bestowed on a workforce by policy or statute, or by individuals, or is it a product of collaborative cultures and flattened hierarchies, which have been a holy grail – for some – for many years now? Using the terms “empowerment” or “empowering” doesn’t necessarily mean that this is how individuals feel in practice – especially if the model of empowerment is decided on by only a few people.
We face similar dilemmas in developing young learners as “responsible citizens” – one of the four capacities of Curriculum for Excellence, of course. When we start drawing lines and arguing that this does not mean they should be missing school to protest climate change, cuts to music tuition or any other issue, are we not saying to them and others that “responsible citizens” must conform to our schema of what that entails?
The Headteachers’ Charter is now a very short document – two pages – that says nothing about the moral imperatives and values that underpin effective school leadership, but a lot about school leaders being reminded about to whom they are ultimately responsible: local authorities and government.
“An empowered system is built on mutual trust, cooperation and highly effective communication,” begins the introduction. The next four paragraphs then go on to highlight the headteacher role as a “senior manager” of the local authority, pointing out that “the local authority can intervene in a school-level decision if a statutory, contractual or financial obligation would be breached”.
The interpretation of this will vary across the country, and I am sure I am not the only headteacher that has ever felt completely disempowered by their local authority and decisions taken by it. Again, imploring school leaders towards “evidence-based decisions” can be a bit rich when faced with local authorities’ and government decisions that are a bit light or choosy on the “evidence” they are prepared to cite for their own decisions. Evidence-informed practice can often come quickly into conflict with government and local authority strategy. Look at standardised testing in P1, for example. The evidence tells us this is developmentally inappropriate, but it is policy, so is being employed by many against their professional knowledge.
The rest of the charter looks at how school leaders should lead on learning and teaching, empowering the learning community and making the best use of resources. Really? Do we need a charter to identify these as areas of priority? Much of this reads like a poorly drawn-up job description, failing to go into any detail or to reference any research evidence for what is included (and what is not). It reads more as a technical document than the empowering one it purports to be.
Throughout the charter, emphasis is placed on headteachers and their responsibilities to local authorities and to the government. If anything, as a headteacher, I think it is more likely that you would feel even more hamstrung, and beholden to their demands and requirements, rather than empowered. A lot of the requirements of school leaders are very general in nature and open to wide-scale interpretation. I am not sure if the language used is deliberately opaque, or another example of what flows from a process that seems to have been particularly insular?
In the lead up to the Education Bill withdrawn last year, the opening paragraph of the consultation on the proposed charter said: “This will clearly empower headteachers to make key decision about learning and teaching in their schools and clarify the responsibilities that local authorities have to enable headteachers to be the leaders of their schools.”
It fails on both counts and feels a bit like a sop to the local authorities, who no doubt feel threatened by more headteacher autonomy as well as the establishment of the “regional improvement collaboratives”. It does fit the definition at the start though, especially around the ‘demands’ from the government.
It’s another opportunity missed – and one which may leave headteachers feeling more weakened than empowered.
George Gilchrist is an education blogger and a former primary headteacher in Scotland. He tweets @GilchristGeorge