Bid farewell to headship's 'superheroes'

2nd December 2011 at 00:00
An alternative approach to school leadership, based more on `pragmatism' than `charisma', seems well suited to Curriculum for Excellence, not to mention the age of austerity

School leaders are everywhere. The head who issues diktats from behind his office door is obsolete; the head who rescues a school from mediocrity by sheer force of personality is going the same way. A new orthodoxy is taking shape, in which headteachers and callow first-year students alike join the massed ranks of leaders.

A new report on the Flexible Route to Headship (FRH) throws light on the shifting sands of school leadership. The programme, which started in 2007, has been depicted as the practical alternative to the more academic Scottish Qualification for Headship. But that is too simplistic and obscures the defining characteristic: the fundamental role of coaching.

The flexible route casts aside any notion of the senior manager as omniscient sage, handing down kernels of expertise to grateful underlings. "Coaching is not providing the solution, but asking relevant, insightful questions, having the participant come to a solution themselves," said project director Jim Keegans, who works within the national CPD team at Education Scotland.

National CPD co-ordinator Margaret Alcorn is dismissive of the idea of the inspirational leader: "What you might find inspirational, I might just find irritating." In FRH, she said, it is the student who "owns the learning and decides the way it's going to be developed, rather than following a programme".

The report found participants "unanimously enthusiastic about the focus on self-evaluation, the critical role of coaches and the engagement with professional reading", based on a survey completed by 30 people, individual interviews and focus groups. Mr Keegans is "very happy" that 64 of the 161 people who have started the course are now employed as heads, with 71 still working toward the qualification.

Participating local authorities, who nominate teachers to take part, anticipate that the programme will lead to more coaching and mentoring approaches within schools, and more internal appointments to headteacher posts.

The coaching approach promoted by FRH is finding its way into all stages of the teacher career. Mr Keegans cites the three Ayrshire local authorities' Model of CPD in Early Headship programme, in which experienced headteachers work closely with new heads. Meanwhile, a trial Strategic Leadership Development Programme, involving the national CPD team and education directors' body ADES, will see the coaches become the coached after it is launched next week: it is a response to a lack of high-quality CPD for experienced education leaders.

The emphasis on coaching in such programmes reflects changing attitudes to all forms of CPD. Teachers are deciding what will benefit their own school, rather than traipsing along to hear gurus dispense wisdom; teachers as "pedagogical leaders" is a concept that is taking hold in Scotland.

"Five years ago, CPD was done to you outwith school, and you came back slightly different," Mr Keegans said. "We changed that and put in place this model: it's in school, it's an experience, you're learning through the support of a coach, it's less course-focused - you're not going out to participate in a particular course in a particular venue."

But school leadership is still a concept in flux, believes Graham Donaldson, the former senior chief inspector whose review of teacher education this year called for a "clear, progressive leadership pathway".

There is a lot of arcane theorising around school leadership, and Professor Donaldson said last month, "I think we've over-complicated the whole notion of leadership," as he urged teachers not to forget that the bottom line is the impact on pupils. There is no national consensus about a definition, he told a seminar at St George's School in Edinburgh; it was a "contested area".

New approaches to leadership should entail a more sophisticated understanding of teaching, Professsor Donaldson believes. If teaching involved merely "instructing, delivering, implementing", teachers risked being replaced by people and systems who claimed they could do it more cheaply, he explained. Rupert Murdoch's recent and controversial foray into educational technology and services in the USA was a case in point.

But teachers were not easily supplanted if their role was "seen as much more complex", if it demanded a deep understanding of education's purpose, curriculum design, and interaction that goes on across the curriculum.

"Good practice is important but how we arrive at it is even more important," Professor Donaldson said. "We shouldn't have a copying culture in terms of how we think about change."

When HM Inspector Graeme Logan addressed a recent leadership conference organised by the AHDS union in Glasgow, he brought insight from various headteachers and from his role as a professional adviser on the Donaldson review. "The most effective leaders didn't just have one particular style," Mr Logan found.

Delegating responsibility and being supportive, for example, did not exclude a tough streak; one head advocated an "iron heart and velvet gloves". Championing personal responsibility for learning, similarly, did not mean abandoning so-called traditional methods in the classroom. Mr Logan had heard pupils say: "We're fed up with all this active learning - we just want the teacher to tell us something."

But there was a common factor in outstanding leadership: "clarity about where we are and where we are going".

Leaders should be asking staff to identify what really matters, he said. Any time staff and pupils get together, they should ask: "If it's not helping achieve those aims, why are we doing it?"

This was a "really simple idea with powerful impact", said Mr Logan.

Some education directors will still talk about the difference an outstanding headteacher can make. Although it is increasingly unfashionable to say so, there are directors who will tell you that in a struggling school, an autocratic approach can work.

But the most important aspect of leadership is trust in others, according to one headteacher quoted by Mr Logan at the AHDS conference. Another quipped: "A good leader will take a bit more of the blame and a little less of the credit."

Heather Dunk would appear to personify the democratisation of leadership in Scottish education.

When the Kilmarnock College principal breezed on stage at the AHDS conference, all cheery energy and pithy wisdom, she seemed like exactly the sort of charismatic leader who would be brought in to turn around a struggling institution. Which she was: the college had been heavily criticised by inspectors and the media before her arrival in 2008, and staff morale was low.

"They had been bashed over the head by so many people so many times that they didn't think they were good at anything." Mrs Dunk recalled.

She described vividly what she did: literally rolling up her sleeves to lead by example and paint walls that were "pretty dull and boring and very brown"; getting rid of "do not do this" signs, which seemed a bigger priority than anything which might inspire students as they arrived in the building.

But her success has been about more than infectious enthusiasm and disdain for petty rules: she also made it a priority to establish goals for staff, who "had never had anyone set any expectations for them".

Every year, Mrs Dunk asks staff what their expectations are of her; goals in the college are established through collaboration. Weekly updates tell people about all the good things that are happening.

By 2010, Kilmarnock College was able to boast an outstanding HMIE report. It noted that staff not only valued Mrs Dunk's motivational qualities, but also her pragmatism; charisma alone does not make a good leader.

A Glasgow University study programme for South Lanarkshire teachers is attempting to kill off another cliche: that leadership is more about doing than thinking.

Programme leader Mike Carroll is frustrated by an artificial divide he often finds in Scotland between academia and the classroom.

"What we're essentially saying is that it's not about theory or practice - it's about theory and practice, consciously theorised practice," he said. "It's about having a variety of different perspectives or theories that we can call upon."

This questioning and explorative approach to teaching chimes with a point made by Graham Donaldson at his St George's School leadership seminar. A teacher of 20 years is not necessarily experienced, Professor Donaldson said, as that teacher might have been repeating the same things for two decades - in which case he or she has only one year of experience.

The Glasgow University course is for teachers nominated by their heads as "people we should be supporting in taking the step towards pedagogical leadership". Dr Carroll had long been concerned that leadership in Scottish schools equated to senior management.

The course emerged from hefty cuts to student-teacher intakes, in return for which the Scottish Government provided money to be used to aid implementation of Curriculum for Excellence as the university saw fit.

The new course last year provided scholarships for all 20 participants; this year, with one-off government funding gone, South Lanarkshire Council and participants are halving the costs of just under pound;1,000 each. The cohorts, who receive 60 credits that could be carried towards a masters, have included nursery and special-needs staff.

Dr Carroll, influenced by people such as Stirling University's Jenny Reeves, is nurturing a view of leadership as "fundamentally relational": good leaders make links within and beyond their school, constructing a deep pedagogical expertise with "a very direct benefit for children".

He stresses that a headteacher remains "fundamentally critical" in creating a school culture, but adds: "It's more about that ripple effect, where you provide space and opportunity for people to move into a leadership role - then letting them get on with that."

South Lanarkshire has come up with leadership programmes for all stages of a teacher's career - from probation through to the experienced head - said quality improvement officer John Edgar. That is partly because the authority is in tune with current thinking, although Mr Edgar concedes there is also a financial imperative: local authorities, under heavy financial pressure, are more inclined to put the onus for CPD onto schools.

Dr Carroll's long-held wish that leadership escape its traditional boundaries is now firmly a mainstream aspiration, as Education Scotland's transitional chief executive, Bill Maxwell, confirmed to TESS. "Raising the quality and consistency of leadership across all areas of the education system" was, he said, part of Education Scotland's "core mission".

But there is a paradox about this emerging culture of leadership for all: it remains a struggle to recruit headteachers. At primary level it has been getting "more and more difficult" to find suitable candidates, said AHDS general secretary Greg Dempster. Local authorities have to advertise posts "time and again", although some are bucking that trend.

Mr Dempster is hopeful that the move to spread leadership throughout institutions will break down the "them and us" divide between teachers and managers, and persuade more people to go for formal leadership positions.

There is, however, another stumbling block.

"The issue of salary always appears in this discussion," Mr Dempster said. "AHDS firmly believes that the job-sizing toolkit stands in the way of a sensible career pathway in school leadership."

There is a leadership "crisis" at secondary level, said School Leaders Scotland general secretary Ken Cunningham. Recruitment to headships has become harder in the past four or five years. While the diffusion of leadership would not do any harm in preparing teachers for senior management, issues around pensions and job-sizing were strong deterrents, he added.

He fears some of the current rhetoric around leadership betrays a "huge lack of trust" in headteachers. His point is echoed by Graham Donaldson: he feels that some of the reaction to the McCormac review of teachers' terms and conditions - around the notion of teachers making temporary moves into promoted roles, for example - has revealed a "distrust of headteachers" and how they would incorporate such ideas.

Mr Cunningham believes, too, that care has to be taken to see the distinction - albeit often overlapping - between pedagogical leadership and that exercised by a headteacher. There was a "world of difference": heads had to deal with values systems, practical management issues, and take responsibility for failure.

"It's absolutely right that teachers should be encouraged to be leaders and be working together in a collegiate fashion, but it's still absolutely right that somebody's got to carry the can when it goes wrong," he said.

The biggest obstacles to the proliferation of leadership may come from outwith schools. Authoritarian and inspirational leaders, played down and even scorned inside Scottish education, retain credibility with a public that is fascinated by the success of Alex Ferguson, Steve Jobs and their like.

That much was clear at Graham Donaldson's recent seminar in Edinburgh, where he presented teachers with four types of heads. Scenario A depicted a "strong established head who sees himself as a figurehead". Teaching approaches were consistent across the school, and not much attention was given to communication. He was "respected and partly feared" by staff, pupils and parents, but exam results were good and lots of pupils went on to university.

No one in the room thought this was the type of school that should be encouraged; they preferred other scenarios with collaborative heads. But what, asked Mr Donaldson, if they chose their preferred scenario as parents rather than teachers? Slowly, sheepishly, a few hands went up in support of Scenario A.

The flexible route to headship

- Started in 2007

- Managed by national CPD team - now part of Education Scotland - on behalf of Scottish Government.

- Typically takes 18-22 months to complete.

- There have been 161 participants from 17 local authorities.

- 64 now working as headteachers, with 71 still to complete the course.

- 21 people have dropped out, usually due to changes in personal or professional circumstances rather than dissatisfaction with the course, some because they got a headship in the interim.

- 14 authorities involved since end of pilot in 2008; they select the teachers who take part.

- 71 coaches involved since 2007, drawn from local authority officers, headteachers - in post and retired - and graduates of the programme.

- Participants come from both primary and secondary sectors, but so far none from special schools.

Going it alone

A number of authorities are "growing their own" leaders, rather than using the Scottish Qualification for Headship or the Flexible Route to Headship.

Earlier this year TESS reported on the Future Leaders Development Programme (FLDP) in the Borders. It is marked by its emphasis on coaching, which has been at the heart of the authority's philosophy across all departments for several years. The first two courses involved teachers only, but a revised scheme brought teachers together with transport managers, social workers, lawyers and engineers.

Those who have been through the 12-month FLDP include some who had not previously considered headships. They feared the SQH was too intensive and time-consuming to take on alongside family responsibilities - it takes 26 months to complete.

In October, 16 South Ayrshire teachers became the first graduates from the authority's Leadership Development Programme for aspiring heads and deputes. It started in October 2010 and was designed as a "sustainable and affordable" approach, which would help teachers into promoted posts within three years of completion. From this year's cohort, 12 have already got there.

The course covers: strategic leadership; self-evaluation against management and leadership competences; leading and managing change; managing prioritiesworking smarter; case studies of leadership styles; peer consultation process; shadowing a leader in a school.

Courses such as those in the Borders and South Ayrshire throw up a conundrum: there is a rising number of people with the qualifications, expertise and confidence to go for promotion, yet, because of the trend for faculty heads rather than principal teachers, fewer posts for which to aim.

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today