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How does your leader grow?

Risk-taking heads need nurturing at college if they are going to blossom, writes Ray Tarleton

If you ask any of the stakeholders in education, from governors to children and parents, what heads actually do, the answer is rarely that they lead.

Few would probably even see a distinction between leadership and management.

In one respect, Peter Wilby (TES, October 17) discussing the leadership management divide was right - leadership cannot be taught. But effective heads are constantly learning how to lead. His conclusion, therefore, that we do not need a National College for School Leadership is profoundly wrong. If, as Peter Wilby believes, leadership grows from experience, we could simply allow periods of time to enable heads to develop their skills, like gardeners waiting for trees to bear fruit.

Where does that leave today's children? The distinction between leadership and management is illuminating. Leadership is about establishing direction, offering opportunities, taking risks, creating a climate, setting expectations and finding connections. School leaders bring out the best in all their staff, developing organisations in which all adults, including themselves, are learners. They reach out to communities, to other schools and organisations and they constantly re-invent themselves.

In newspaper terms, management is the production of a similar quality product each week. Leadership demands the originality and creativity to invent new formats and designs, and the willingness to respond to new technology, to interpret the modern world and control change.

Interestingly, parents, governors and children probably would prefer good management to inspired leadership, and yet, as the newspaper parallel suggests, leadership is necessary for survival in a changing world.

Even management is more complex than the simplistic descriptions offered.

In many schools - and certainly those engaged in NCSL projects - managers are debating with teachers and children about learning, values, and classroom research. They are working with colleagues in other schools as part of networked learning communities, an inspired project both led and managed by the national college.

In the past, headteachers had varied styles; there was no consistency. They were academics, scholars and teachers. If in doubt, remember the head's room was always referred to as his or her study. The term office is a product of modern local management.

At its best, the NCSL nurtures the risk-takers, the collaborators, those who wish to extend the boundaries of their own professional knowledge. The college offers case studies and opportunities for evidence-based research.

It allows us to engage in debate about leadership.

Many heads acknowledge the inspiration from their connection with the college. Did I say "connection"? The TES mocked the term when used by Heather du Quesnay, chief executive, recently in suggesting that heads were now beginning to "connect with us". Perhaps "link with" or "become involved with" would have been more colloquial, but why use two or three words when one will do? The language of leadership is, like the college itself, in its infancy, but Heather du Quesnay was in good company. In 1910 EM Forster used the phrase "only connect the prose and the passion" in the novel Howards End, powerfully to suggest avoiding the fragmentation of society.

The connection of school leaders suggests a new form of collaboration and shared insights. We can sit in offices and wait for staff to share their problems with us or we can connect with the national college and grow more quickly as leaders.

We can learn about leadership from those who are creating aspirational schools, placing moral purpose, inclusion and entitlement at the heart of their work, and finding new ways of educating the whole workforce, not simply the pupils.

You can mock phrases out of context but I will stay connected.

Ray Tarleton is principal of South Dartmoor community college and national co-ordinator of the NCSL Leadership Network

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