A survey of secondary school headteachers and depute heads, conducted by the Centre for Educational Leadership in May, reveals a profession squeezed by increasing and diverse demands.
The survey, answered by 153 members of the Headteachers'
Association of Scotland, paralleled a similar study that had been undertaken in Australia and New Zealand. Despite contextual differences, the picture which emerges is quite similar (TES Scotland, September 26), showing pressures from within (changes in society and in children's expectations) and pressures from without (new structures and initiatives, nationally and locally).
The school leaders are generally clear about what their job should involve and what they see as their principle commitment - to improve the learning experience of the young people in their care - but they are frustrated by their inability to do the job they believe needs to be done. The study highlights tension between the ideal head they want to be, the head they actually are and the head they believe is wanted by those who employ them and hold them accountable.
The last is the most demanding. Heads reckon their employers want them to be equally capable and competent in all areas of responsibility, namely strategic management, curriculum leadership, management and administration and dealing effectively with all student issues that arise in the day-to-day experience of the school. At the same time, they are expected to engage proactively with the student body, communicate effectively with all partners, work with parents and the community and manage and deal with their staff.
No wonder heads and deputes feel overloaded.
Many commentators summarise the tension in terms of competition between "professional" and "managerial" demands. The survey respondents want to be proactive educational leaders but find themselves reacting to demands from the system and from daily events in the life of the school and overburdened by management tasks.
Similar survey results in New Zealand lay the blame on the restructuring of schools in the 1990s. In Scotland, trends towards diversification of roles and increasing pressure from different directions can be found too.
Neil Cranston, of Queensland University of Technology, commenting on the Australian study, says: "The tension which exists between the educative role and the administrative role played by leaders seems to be a perennial dilemma." This is confirmed in other studies of school leadership, such as Chris Day et al's study into primary headship (Leading Schools in Times of Change, Nottingham University, presented at the European Conference of Educational Research in 1999).
There are too many situations in school where there is no clear right and wrong answer. For example, the right of some children to safety and security may appear to conflict with others' right to inclusion; the need for consistency in the application of rules may conflict with the interests of an individual child, for whom the rules may be better bent.
Viewing these difficult decisions as dilemmas gives a different perspective on school leadership challenges. In a text book or policy manual, challenges often have clear solutions and the school marches on in a linear progress, with everyone in step. In reality, there may be many situations where the best you can hope for is to get to the end of the day.
The head can be left feeling very uncomfortable with the compromise that is reached because there is no perfect solution. They may bend the rules for the sake of one child but feel this is not fair to the others; or include one child but compromise the safety of others.
In Scotland, with teachers' contracts now requiring a commitment to continuing professional development, there is a temptation to see better training, preparation and development as the solution to these tensions and conflicts. Many of the survey respondents say that they would welcome help and support (of the right quality) in improving their understanding and skills in key areas of their work and that this is an ongoing need.
However, overload problems are not just to do with their own professional development. System-wide factors also contribute.
CPD is important for maintaining professional morale and capability but it is not a panacea; these tensions will not dissolve and disappear. Living with contradiction and tension is part and parcel of being a headteacher these days. The issue is not how to get rid of it but how to handle it.
Much faith has been put in Scotish school leaders as key figures to bring about desirable change, not just educationally but through education in society at large.
As schools undertake responsibility not only for the cognitive growth of their pupils but also for civic foundations within a complex pluralistic society, these demands have increased and diversified and they will do so even more. This requires a much broader conception of the school leader than either the classroom-focused pedagogical technician or the competent and efficient resource manager.
As so many school leaders in the survey agree, they have never needed high quality development opportunities more than now: the challenges just keep growing. Some CPD might usefully focus not on the fixed certainties of particular policies, but on how to handle the tension and dilemmas of professional practice.
Danny Murphy was, until last month, director of the Centre for Educational Leadership at Edinburgh Universitywww.cel.ed.ac.uk