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How to grow a leader

An independent 'heads college' could be the best thing to hit education in years, argues Dean Fink

My recent participation in an international conference sponsored by the National College for School Leadership has reinforced my conviction that the college is one of the most significant educational leadership initiatives in the world.

As a Canadian, engaged internationally in leadership development, I applaud the creation of the college and fervently hope it succeeds. An independent college, that is free to assist governments, local authorities, and schools to recruit, develop, induct and support leaders will contribute significantly to "deep" and lasting learning experiences for all students.

The success of the college, however, will depend on how well it looks at leadership in the long term, by focusing on potential, rather than the short termism that so often infects contemporary educational efforts. The college will outlive this government and I hope the lives of many governments over many years. To tie its definition and approach to leadership too closely to the educational agenda of this or any government is, in my view, to court future irrelevance.

Leadership in recent years has become a growth industry. Politicians demand more of it, academics decry the lack of it, and potential school leaders are deciding "to hell with it". For many years, policy-makers around the world have sought to enrol leaders' support for imposed educational changes by combining extensive lists of expected proficiencies with elaborate accountability procedures.

Paradoxically, at a time when policy-makers have placed so much importance on leadership, it would appear that this approach has inhibited it and obliged heads and other educational leaders to become little more than the managers of externally mandated changes. The inadequacies of this strategy and the leadership shortages that have resulted have now produced a call for leaders to be less "managerial" and "transactional" and more "transformational".

Advocates contend that "transformational" leaders pursue common goals, empower teachers, and share decision-making with colleagues. While the rhetoric is inspiring, critics have argued that transformational leadership is just a subtle strategy to colonise teachers into co-operating with top-down changes in which they find little meaning.

As an experienced leader at many levels of education over many years, I find the arguments about best styles and best practices unhelpful and frankly fruitless. It is the technocrat's dream to find a leadership template that ensures predictable results regardless of context. Successful leaders use a variety of strategies and styles depending on what it takes to create an environment for learning, and they actively search out the many good practices that are out there, but they also adapt them to their particular contexts.

How then do we prepare people for their future as leaders of learning? This may sound heretical, but others can do most of the "stuff" that presently consumes school leaders' time and can probably do it better. It is ironic that local management of schools has meant decentralising management issues like budgets, school repairs and transportation and centralising the "what", "how", and "why" of education to central bureaucracies quite removed from learners.

When one sees the kinds of tasks governments have downloaded to schools in the name of local decision-making it is no wonder that your Government is now considering non-educators to be suitable to be school heads. If all that the advocates of this policy want are "paper pushers" and "intellectual accountants" then they are on the right track. If, however, they are serious about students' learning, I believe this policy is misguided. At the same time, unless school heads see themselves as educators and find ways to reinvent themselves as "leaders of learning", then I suspect the new breed envisaged by some government officials will conduct the business of schooling more efficiently, if not more effectively.

I repeat, however, the only rationale for educational leadership is to attend to those things that enhance students' learning. To this end I would suggest that the college develops a coordinated approach to leadership succession. It needs planning that combines the recruitment, development, induction, and on-going support of educational leaders based on what they will require in various contexts over time. In a recent book It's about learning (and it's about time) my colleagues Louise Stoll, Lorna Earl, and I argued that leadership for learning is not a destination with fixed co-ordinates on a compass, but a journey with plenty of detours and even some dead ends.

Effective educational leaders are continuously open to new learning because the journey keeps changing. Their maps are complex and can be confusing. What leaders require is a set of interrelated learnings looking at school leadership in a holistic rather than reductionist way. These learnings can be deepened, elaborated, nurtured, abandoned, and connected and related to other learnings as the journey progresses.

The extent to which the National College for School Leadership can maintain its independence, and pursue an image of educational leaders as "leaders of learning" will determine whether the college becomes a world leader or an interesting and expensive footnote in the annals of education in this country.

Dr Dean Fink is a former school head and inspector in Ontario and visiting fellow at the University of Hull

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