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High on African spirit

Ubuntu - community values - should be the force guiding schools to the top. David Hopkins (right), mountaineer and first chair of international leadership, talks to Yojana Sharma

What does climbing the North Face of Everest have in common with living in an African village? Both provide vital lessons in school leadership, says David Hopkins, himself a mountaineer, but better known in the UK as chief adviser on school standards to three education secretaries.

Newly installed as holder of the world's first chair of international leadership in education, sponsored by HSBC, at London's Institute of Education, his views on school leadership have been shaped in part by his climbing experiences. It is not just about being a figurehead, a superhero, or an autocrat, he says. It is about teamwork and community spirit, where each helps the other get to the summit, or in the case of African villages, to survive in a hostile environment through the community spirit of "ubuntu".

Hopkins will link school leadership with "ubuntu" in a keynote speech to the International Confederation of Principals in Cape Town next week. The African philosophy that promotes the realisation of people's potential through service to others, "ubuntu" derives from an old Zulu proverb "umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu" -a person is a person through other people. It emphasises interdependence, singleness of purpose and collective effort.

"If you analyse the culture of effective schools you will find 'ubuntu' values are at its heart," he says.

A successful school, according to Hopkins, must steer through moral and strategic problems. They must be a learning community for adults and children and must have high expectations that impact on community expectations. "Reforms must not just improve a school but improve a community and society," he says. "Heads have to be concerned with the success of other schools, not just their own."

When he heard about the concept he realised it was consistent with what he has been trying to do in his own life. "It is about giving people confidence in themselves and confidence to help others. Our success in life is not just about how we succeed but how we help others succeed as well."

Hopkins grew up in a Welsh mining community and he was the first in his family to go to university. He fell into mountaineering and teaching quite by chance after studying politics at Reading university. "I was planning to research political culture in East Africa when my father died. Instead I found a course nearer home in North Wales on outdoor activities which also, by chance, awarded a teacher-training certificate," he says.

There followed a period as an Outward Bound instructor in Britain and the US. "Outward Bound is about fostering leadership of both yourself and a group," he says.

Later, while studying for a doctorate in Canada he was able to combine academia with work as an Outward Bound instructor. He led his first of 12 major expeditions - to Nanda Devi in the Himalayas - in 1978 and is proud to be one of the first 10 British mountain guides to receive the international mountain guides carnet.

Last year, at age 55, he led an expedition to Everest's North Col with his 15-year-old son, Jerden, for the Charity MacIntyre Care for the Mentally Disabled. One of their companions, Paul Sillitoe, went higher up Everest than any other mentally disabled person in history.

Mountaineers depend on each other. There is no room for the prima donna.

"The people I admire as leaders are those with very strong personal integrity, tenacity, a clear vision of where they want to go, a high degree of humanity and caring. These may be old-fashioned values but they still hold true for leadership," he says. He names Nelson Mandela, Bill Clinton "on a good day", Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma's jailed pro-democracy leader, and Dag Hammarskjold of Sweden, the second United Nations Secretary-General, among his pantheon of leaders to be emulated. Perhaps surprisingly, he adds Sir Bob Geldof for trying to mobilise world leaders and "tilt the world on its own axis in favour of the poor". He also cites Tony Alvarado, who turned around New York's schools, as "an example of an educator infused with moral purpose".

Under Hopkins's stewardship, a new two-year part-time MBA in international education leadership begins at the Institute of Education in Easter 2006.

Hopkins explains that many heads are doing outstanding work and "international education leadership is about sharing outstanding ideas and practice", something he promotes by supporting the international school leadership network, iNet, which was set up by the Specialist Schools Trust.

"England is in a sense leading the world in large-scale reform: it is not so much that we must learn from the rest of the world, but learn from the best of what we already have," he says.

Nonetheless there is something to be learned from Scandinavian countries where the community aspects of education are well developed, from the spirit of "ubuntu" among the villagers of South Africa, and even from the togetherness of the sherpas of Nepal, for whom comradeship is as important as achievement.

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