Leading from the front

The best headteachers spend more time out of the office - in classrooms or in the playground

THE DISTINGUISHING feature of school leaders who have received HMIE's top gradings may be their tendency to spend more time in classrooms and around the school than in their own offices.

Margaret Alcorn, Scotland's national CPD co-ordinator, told the annual conference of AEDIPS (the Association of Educational Development and Improvement Professionals in Scotland) in Troon last week that she had visited teachers and heads in the schools which had received the inspectorate's top plaudits to find out what it was that made them "excellent".

"Many didn't know, but part of their success was that they modelled the core values they believed in and imbued them in the school," Mrs Alcorn said. "But I found that the best school leaders spent two days in their office and three days in the classroom or playground."

That meant heads had to be brave enough to make an angry parent wait and explain they had to spend time with the children before dealing with the complaint, she advised.

The best headteachers were also passionate about their responsibility for every learner, but also had the courage to let mistakes be made and lessons learnt from these mistakes. Effective leaders knew that learning was best done together and in collaborative communities. "Learning in isolation is like teaching in isolation - it is not effective," she said.

The other side of the coin was the teacher who had told her: "I am an excellent teacher. I have always been an excellent teacher. I know my stuff. Just because the pupils won't learn in my class does not make me a bad teacher."

Mrs Alcorn said the teacher had confused being learned herself with her pupils' effective learning: "She had deeply misunderstood what a teacher was."

Most Scottish schools already had the capacity to lead effective learning, but there still existed a very passive view of education in some quarters.

"People are waiting for the magic dust to arrive - or a lorry with books and resources to tell them what A Curriculum for Excellence is about," she said.

Angus MacDonald, former head of education at Inverclyde Council and recently retired as a member of the national CPD team, said effective learning required effective collegiality, but asked: "If we are going to achieve collegiality, should we be starting from here?"

He suggested the national teachers' agreement might not have helped the situation. Flattening the promotion structure in schools might have reduced the number of layers, he said, but it may also have steepened the side of the pyramid and created a bigger gap between posts.

Mr MacDonald suggested the agreement had been right to identify the large number of minor promoted posts in schools as being a problem, but said:

"Perhaps the problem was not the fact they existed in relatively large numbers, but the fact they existed in too rigid a form. Perhaps if we want to promote ideas of collegiality and devolve leadership, we should encourage people to create jobs in that devolved structure.

"Perhaps what we need are lots of minor promoted posts - ones that are short-term, flexible and task-oriented."

He also queried whether education authorities and schools were working in opposite directions when it came to structures. Schools had removed lots of minor promoted posts, but authorities were increasing them.

Mr MacDonald's experience over 18 months of working in the national continuing professional development team had been that there was a high degree of engagement among young entrants to the profession, which reflected well on the education authorities.

However, his cautionary word to the conference was: "We can have all the structures that we like, but the ethos can subvert the structure, as we know very well."

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