'School leaders may not need to be certified. But they must have a chance to reflect and critique themselves'

23rd July 2016 at 14:02
We must be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater on the issue of professional development for future heads, writes one leading headteacher

I was interested to read, on TES News yesterday, education consultant Joe Nutt assert confidently that "there is no robust evidence that professional qualifications make a difference to the quality of leadership".

He’s persuasive. Pause to take stock of the leaders we’ve known, and we’re more likely to recall examples not of shining inspiration (though we might hope to experience a little of that in the course of a career) but of disastrous people in senior positions who boast certificates or letters after their name and use all the management-speak, but: a) irritate and alienate those they work with, and b) appear incapable of organising any kind of festivity within a brewery.

Let’s not convince ourselves, though, that leaders are only born, and cannot be made: if that were true, we’d often be short (take a look at Parliament right now!). We must believe that we can indeed identify, develop and train potentially great leaders.

It’ll be done not by creating huge lists of "competencies" (horrible word) which unimaginative candidates tick off, box by box, in the manner of the juvenile birdwatcher going through the book and marking every species he [sic] has encountered (I was once one of those).

That's not training.

Leaders of the future need to be given opportunities to reflect on their own experience of being led and on their current practice, at whatever level, of leading others: to reflect critically and have that reflection challenged.

For me, it’s ancient history: I was lucky to encounter the right opportunities at the right time. I became a head in 1990, and was very young: so how did I convince the governing body that I was the person to lead their school?

At the time, I was half-way through a part-time MEd at Birmingham University. I’d spent four of the required seven terms going to the university every week, hearing lectures, joining seminar discussions and producing an essay at the end of term. To gain the qualification in education policy and management, I’d started with a two-term course in organisation theory and management. Perhaps I didn’t really need to understand the ins and outs of Weberian Bureaucracy: more to the point, however, sharing the course and travel with a colleague, we could argue all the way home (and in the pub) about how those theories related to our real practice.

'Choose the right leaders to learn from'

I’ve never been a fan of the National Professional Qualification for Headship (NPQH), the government-overseen framework for the development of potential headteachers. Ministers were sceptical, too, because too few senior teachers who completed it actually took up headships. When the Coalition came to power, I joined a panel reviewing the qualification. Inevitably, when government gets involved, it creates lists of standards: actually, the national standards for headship are pretty good, but government control systems invariably result in a tick-box approach to prove standards are met. That's where it goes wrong.

Overall, I’m with Joe Nutt. We don’t require alliterative mnemonics for leadership success, slogans like “Three Cs for success” (“Command, Cooperation, any other old Cobblers?”). And we certainly don't want, as he opined, talks from ex-detergent salesmen about how they honed their leadership skills by observing Masai warriors.

We can learn from other leaders, however. If you've ever heard Greg Dyke, who was BBC director-general from 2000 to 2004 – and (according to him) was thrown to the wolves by the governors after the "weapons of mass destruction" scandal – you may have learned much from a man who has turned failure, however you define it, into wisdom.

Joe Nutt quotes Claudio Ranieri: to Leicester City’s hugely successful boss we might add Eddie Jones, who has transformed the England rugby team. Both have been sacked after ignominious failures: both have learned from the experience, and triumphed.

Nutt is right, but is also wrong. We don't need leaders with paper qualifications or glib mantras: they’re about management rather than true leadership, in any case. But we must require leaders to have been through a process of powerful thought, reflection, challenge and critique.

If we readily reject certification without insisting on developing leadership’s essential soft skills, we risk throwing yet another baby out with the bathwater, something which we've made quite an art form in UK education.

Dr Bernard Trafford is headteacher of Royal Grammar School, Newcastle upon Tyne, and a former chairman of the HMC. The views expressed here are personal. He tweets as @bernardtrafford

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