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Somebody has to lead from the front

School leadership is crucial, but it must form part of a proper national plan, says Judith McClure

There can be no doubt that the building of leadership capacity is central to the next phase of the development of Scottish education, as the Scottish Executive's reform plans recognised last week. Our challenges are ones that face education internationally: the need to provide a flexible curriculum relevant to the needs of each learner, to bridge the gap in attainment, to provide for everyone the skills necessary for 21st century life and work and to assess achievement in ways that will encourage learning and at the same time produce an accurate guide for employers, universities and colleges.

In Scotland, we cannot be complacent but we have learnt a great deal through evaluating our efforts in the past 10 years and we have key strengths in our system which should encourage us to continue to improve.

What we need most of all is leadership at every level which will enable each school to respond to the opportunities and challenges which it encounters.

For each pupil the most important leaders are their own teachers and support staff, who in turn need the collegiality and sense of common purpose engendered by membership of effective teams in well-led schools.

The team and school leaders need to develop their own skills and to share in the strategic leadership of their authority and of Scottish education as a whole.

We understand much more about corporate leadership now. Much of the literature on this topic is readable and useful to practitioners: the new Applied Educational Research Network, with its school management and governance strand, is encouraging practitioners to work with researchers in systematic enquiry. We must capitalise on these developments as a matter of urgency. We need to develop leaders at all levels and those of us who occupy team, school and strategic leadership roles cannot afford to be left behind.

The way we respond now to the raft of initiatives and improvements which have followed the national debate on education could bring about a step change in our schools and the way they relate to their communities and to the world of higher and further education and of work.

The foundations on which we build are well established and there is almost certainly a great deal more consensus here than in England and Wales. We are a small country which has taken great pride in education for centuries.

We have learnt how to see the weaknesses in our schools as well as the strengths but we have come through a period of analysis and consultation which has shown that we can work effectively together so long as we are prepared to try new partnerships and not to accept that any doors are closed.

The Scottish Qualifications Authority has emerged from its difficulties reinvigorated and its leadership team is encouraging us to see the flexibility we already have in the new qualifications. In Scotland, we do not need to argue over a new system: we have barely begun to tap the richness and possibilities of the one we have got. Learning and Teaching Scotland is beginning to focus its wide-ranging contributions to curriculum development and the impact of the new technologies and will most certainly be a key player in the developments ahead.

We have an independent inspectorate which gives us a rigorous view of how we are performing and can support us in learning from good practice elsewhere. Our teacher and headteacher organisations are sophisticated and expect to have a voice, and their approach is a professional one. We must make the most of these strengths.

Much of our education system betrays the late 19th century roots of mass education but our ideas are dynamic and we have learnt from business and industry. It would be idle to pretend that there are not great problems to be faced and some schools and their communities need particular support.

The early years of devolution have created an education department in the Executive which is consultative and ready to work in partnership with those involved, not simply with the major national agencies and authorities but with those on the ground in schools. The multi-agency approach we are now learning to create in caring for the needs of vulnerable pupils is being mirrored by a realisation among many of those involved in universities, colleges, the professions and industry that education is a common task and that we must work together in every possible way. Our partnerships at local level may often be tentative and stumbling, but at least we are trying and we shall continue to do so.

Leadership and collegiality may well be the most important words as we work out the future of Scottish education. But how are we to develop the leaders Scottish education needs at every level? Only by engaging as many local team and school leaders as possible in a national plan which is transparent and clear. We have so much to learn from each other but it will only work if barriers are broken down and the goals are common.

HMI, for instance, clearly has an enormous amount to contribute to the leadership agenda. As the headteacher of a school which has recently been inspected, I can join wholeheartedly in the appreciation of the rigour and benefit of the process for school improvement planning. The new proportionate model has not diminished the range and depth of the findings of the inspection team, though it must have put a huge burden on the inspectors themselves. The overall knowledge of leadership in Scottish education at team, school, authority and national levels accumulated by HMI is a resource which must underpin the next stage of providing systematic leadership development.

The master classes, online communities and development opportunities offered by Learning and Teaching Scotland should be part of an overall strategy, and so should the expertise in our universities, which has helped to develop the new induction scheme and has given great benefit to many headteachers through the Scottish Qualification for Headship and the new chartered teacher programmes.

All the initiatives to support and encourage school leaders which are emerging, such as the very successful Columba 1400 courses, should have their place in a national strategy which is understood by all and to which all can contribute. There is no place for separate territories as we strive to give our schools and their pupils the leadership they deserve at a time of dynamic change.

Judith McClure is headteacher of St George's School, Edinburgh, and convener of the Scottish Educational Leadership, Management and Administration Society.

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