Leading from the front of the class

High-quality headship is more important than ever, says Margaret Alcorn

* the Executive's programme, Ambitious, Excellent Schools, high-quality leadership is yet again identified as an essential element in school improvement. The document describes three key actions to promote the development of high-quality school leaders and inspired, ambitious school communities.

First, the Standard for Headship will be revised to ensure it continues to reflect shared leadership priorities in education. Second, new and more rigorous procedures for selecting headteachers will be introduced. Finally, new routes to achieve the Standard for Headship will be developed, offering choice and alternatives to the Scottish Qualification for Headship.

The last of these three commitments has caused most debate in recent weeks.

Before the SQH began in 1998, headteacher development was haphazard and unstructured. Headship was considered by many as a destination in itself, and little support was available to those who sought to continue to develop once appointed. Also, there were few opportunities for teachers to acquire appropriate competences and skills in preparation for leadership, other than stand-alone courses such as timetabling or managing resources.

The appearance of SQH in this arid landscape was exciting. Without doubt the combination of academic study and work-based learning in the programme has provided high-quality leadership development, and delivered many exceptional headteachers. The very positive experience of serving heads acting as field assessors and supporters of candidates has been a welcome by-product of the programme. There is a clear commitment from the Executive to continue to support candidates undertaking this route.

However, it is increasingly clear that for many teachers who have the potential to be excellent leaders, SQH is not proving attractive. Many local authorities struggle to attract sufficient candidates, and there are a significant number of deferments in some areas, as participants struggle to balance the rigorous demands of the programme with the requirement to lead effectively within their school. Despite the close links between the programme and the Standard for Headship, not every successful graduate is ready for headship. At the heart of Ambitious, Excellent Schools is the concept of greater choice and opportunity for pupils. It seems very reasonable to consider this same concept in relation to the development of school leaders.

Ambitious, Excellent Schools articulates clearly the need to develop coherent and progressive pathways for school leaders in Scotland. It offers a vision of professional leadership, where talent is fostered and developed against a clear Standard, where there is flexibility and choice of programmes to reflect the many different contexts in which teachers work and their different learning preferences, where the appointments procedure supports and is congruent with leadership development and where there is close collaboration with HMI to ensure coherence with the Standard in its evaluation of leadership.

We are in an enviable position in Scotland in terms of the quality of our school leaders. HMI reports that 83 per cent of our primary school heads and 86 per cent of those in secondary schools are already good or very good at leadership. This is a strong foundation on which we can build, and we must ensure that new programmes are at least as developmental and rigorous as SQH.

The proposals commit the Executive to a leadership academy, supported by the Hunter Foundation, not as a geographical location, but as a concept that will exist to breathe life and energy into every school in Scotland.

It will, as the document promises, give access to world-class thinking on school leadership in general and school leadership in particular, and allow leaders to learn from each other and share the excellence that exists in many schools. It will encompass a new focus on mentoring, coaching and peer support as powerful tools to support the development of those with the ambition and potential to become future leaders. It will encourage new and innovative approaches to old problems and will support the building of confidence and the exercise of professional judgment as well as the development of skills and competences.

What activities and opportunities might characterise this new leadership academy? It will be a place where teachers will take account of their personal circumstances and working environment in choosing the most appropriate learning. There will be a rich, diverse and multi-textured tapestry of learning opportunities to choose from. Teachers may learn alone or with colleagues. They may study published research, or improve their ability to construct and evaluate research within their own environment.

They may work at home, in universities or in teachers' centres. They will benefit from coaching and being coached, mentoring and being mentored, observing and being observed. Some strands in the tapestry will be familiar. SQH will be there, and so will many of the excellent leadership development courses developed by local authority CPD teams. There will be opportunities for quiet reflection and co-coaching such as the headteacher leadership academy offered by Columba 1400. There will be the chance to learn from world-class experts at the kind of events now run by Tapestry.

There are many challenges in this agenda, not least in terms of how the learning of these future leaders will be accredited, but the building blocks are in place. We must continue to develop effective, high- quality professional review and development processes to guide teachers on their professional journey.

The leadership academy will develop leadership programmes against a background of major changes within education. The new promoted post structure is producing new groups of school leaders, such as principal teachers in primary schools and faculty heads, each of which will require clear and coherent programmes of development. We will need to take account of the CPD needs of the new chartered teachers, and the impact they will have in our schools. Programmes will be needed to support leaders as we move towards integrated service delivery.

In the foreword to Ambitious, Excellent Schools , the Education Minister and his deputy speak of the need to transform our schools so that we perform ever better nationally and internationally. In realising this ambition that all Scottish schools will be excellent, it is important that we nurture and develop the talent and ambition of those teachers who will lead our schools in the years ahead.

Margaret Alcorn is the national co-ordinator for continuing professional development.

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