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Seven stages that challenge leaders

My experience of senior leadership development in education leaves me confused. As a leadership coach working with headteachers and senior management teams, with quality improvement and education officers, and with directors of education, my perception is that leadership development is inconsistent.

At best, it epitomises those who seek challenge, learning and have a sustained thirst for improvement. At worst, it is non-existent. And in the middle, where many of my clients have sat, there is a lot of concentration on management activities and some occasional leadership training - but little of it is done in a driven, integrated and long-term strategic manner.

Yet the heads I work with bring seven consistent themes of challenge to the table:

- how to get more time to think;

- how to sustain the momentum of change across the school;

- how to increase accountability in school;

- how to bring up the leadership capacity, particularly of the senior management team;

- how to manage themselves and their work hours to ensure high performance;

- how to extend their leadership style to be more flexible;

- how to enable the school to embrace the challenge of ambiguity embedded in Curriculum for Excellence.

Working on these same themes - when understood and acted on - makes a huge impact on the school's ability to deliver. One might infer that a consistent approach to leadership development on these topics would be a good thing. So why doesn't it happen? It boils down to two things: demand is not there from heads, and heads are suffering from "initiative fatigue" and question the value of leadership development.

The issue of demand is intriguing. In the private sector, hundreds of organisations offer leadership development courses; supply is high because demand is high. There are 82 business schools in the UK. In my school, 21 courses are available.

In England, the demand from school heads is evident - the NCLS (National College for Leadership of Schools and Children's Services) exists as a recognised hub, providing coherent leadership development. In Scotland, the supply is less coherent and the demand seems variable.

A consistent approach to leadership development - needs analysis, structured pathway, common understanding of excellence, case study work, individual support and expectation of engagement - would be invaluable. It would provide consistency of thought processes and challenge, and enable heads to focus on how to make a local impact.

An example comes up often in my coaching when discussing change. A standard question is how to pace the change, so it is fast enough but will embrace the whole school. The answer lies in understanding which staff members are the "barometers" for setting pace. In a particular secondary school, pace had been set against the middle group of staff, where requirement is for safety, low risk, and feeling comfortable. But the head felt there was slack in the system.

The output of the coaching was to switch the "barometer" to a more confident set of staff who could embrace change quickly, then manage the needs of other slower groups to enable catch-up. Pace accelerated overall.

On the other hand, in one primary, the answer lay absolutely in the middle of the staff - because of the school's history, the staff acted as one body and was inert. The solution was to steadily increase pace to build whole-school confidence, with the possibility of accelerating different groups in the future.

The other question that needs to be better understood is the value of leadership development. Consider the example from my coaching practice of a head and senior team in a rural secondary. The head is experienced and has a good performance. The context of the school is demanding, with demographics and community culture pulling down attainment. The director of education is tough and the relationship could be described as tense.

The results: a 60-70 hour week for the head in a sometimes lonely job; an authority with a downbeat view of the school and its leadership team; an SMT which is struggling to perform well and a few individuals acting individualistically because of pressure.

Our coaching discussions have crossed two school years and involved the whole SMT. The bottom line impact - a significant shift in the head's self-confidence and a pro-active drive to unleash the school's ability to deliver an excellent job much more rigorously. This has meant many changes, including:

- an increase in holding others to account - everyone from classroom teacher through to each SMT member being individually asked for their own conditions for success;

- an increase in confidence of SMT members who act both more authoritatively and consistently;

- a more assertive head when faced with authority challenge, including pushing back;

- a specific understanding of the drivers of workload, and a gradual simplication and shifting in order to decrease hours.

The impact is wide-ranging, going from personal through to strategic changes. This head and team, who previously did not know or understand how to develop such excellent and consistent performance, have entirely embraced the spectrum of the seven common topics above. Who would not want to bring about the same changes?

My sense of the results of variable demand and an inconsistent approach to senior leadership development in schools means that heads and SMTs are more fatigued than they need to be, and less able to deliver on the challenges ahead. Why would heads not want the kind of positive results available through a consistent approach to leadership development? They should stick up their hands and start asking for it.

Jenny Campbell is director of lifetimeswork.

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