Creating the right leadership culture is key to our success

22nd June 2012 at 01:00
School leaders must be allowed to use their initiative and not be held back by outdated or alien practices that just don't fit

The conclusion of a recent McKinsey report that "the quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers" has already become almost a cliche. Yet, that deceptively simple message begs many questions. In particular, what are the conditions that allow high-quality teachers to give of their best? Creating those conditions is the acid test of leadership and that is why the task of establishing the right leadership culture in Scotland is so important.

A school presents difficult and in some ways unique terrain for leadership. Too often it is rather simplistically assumed that school leaders should look to business and industry for models of effective practice. In fact, school leaders face unique challenges in ensuring that their pupils receive the kind of high-quality education to which they are entitled. Unlike the business world, the "bottom line" is complex, contested territory where measurable results vie with less tangible but clearly important educational outcomes. Schools have many different "stakeholders", including teachers, parents, pupils and wider society, whose expectations have to be accommodated.

Headteachers also lead professional communities within which individual teachers have legitimate rights to exercise professional judgement and much of the teachinglearning process is not easily amenable to regular, direct monitoring. The classroom remains a relatively private place yet, as Richard Elmore, professor of educational leadership at Harvard University, says, that is the only place that matters in the school. And, of course, school leadership is constrained by the sometimes subliminal impact of inherited cultures and by its restricted scope for decision making, compared with many other walks of life.

What, then, are the factors that will help to build effective leadership across education? There is a trend across a number of countries to mould leadership by providing much sharper expectations of what is expected of a school, often through accountability reforms. In Australia, for example, the federal government has established a programme of national testing in literacy and numeracy, the results of which are posted on a website for each school (My School website). Each of these websites uses a traffic light system to show comparative performance over time and against comparator schools. The message to heads is very clear about what their bottom line should be.

This is similar to the approach in England over recent years, where again government is making its expectations of school effectiveness very explicit and has put tight systems of testing and inspection in place to promote compliance - and again influence leadership. In contrast, Finland is renowned for giving more freedom to schools and teachers within an aspirational professional culture.

Differing political and cultural contexts prompt particular approaches to leadership. There is no single formula for success.

What about Scotland? As in Finland, there are longstanding traditions that value the professionalism of teachers. In addition, Curriculum for Excellence, alongside the rejection of national testing of pupils and an inspection system that builds on self-evaluation are central elements in the modern Scottish context. Bottom lines rely on the professionalism of the school in helping to define as well as to meet the expectations of parents and wider society. Success depends on the professional integrity and capacity of teachers.

The task of leadership in each and every school, therefore, is to build the confidence and capacity of staff within a climate of high expectations and continuous improvement. The challenge is to establish a consistent culture within which evidence trumps assertion, robust debate and constructive challenge are valued and collegiate learning is the norm.

We need broad agreement across all staff on what matters most and a desire to work together to ensure that every young person can thrive. Distributed leadership does not mean distributed management but an approach to professional growth that encourages all teachers, irrespective of career stage, to contribute to the development of the school and their colleagues.

Of course, leadership at the school level is directly influenced by what happens at the local authority and national levels. It is vitally important that leadership at both those levels provides the necessary clarity of purpose and creates the supporting environment within which school leaders can be encouraged to play their full part. We need to be clear about the qualities - including leadership qualities - needed in 21st-century teachers and ensure that our selection procedures reflect them.

Thereafter we must establish and maintain a relentless focus on professional growth from initial recruitment to the end of a career. Governance and accountability arrangements must enable, encourage and reinforce behaviours that build success. In particular, we need a virtuous cycle within which General Teaching Council for Scotland standards, systems of professional review and development and agreed indicators of success are aligned.

The Scottish government's response to my report, Teaching Scotland's Future, addresses all of these areas and places Scotland at the forefront of teacher development internationally. All of this gives real grounds for optimism but, of course, the test is not intention but action. The National Partnership Group, set up to implement its recommendations, will report shortly and, despite all the current difficulties, we need to move quickly thereafter to build the necessary momentum.

Our best headteachers demonstrate daily leadership of the highest quality and bear comparison with leaders anywhere in the public or private sectors. Creating the conditions for sustained educational success presents unique and complex challenges. As Scotland's policy of professional growth and engagement is converted into actions, we must ensure that our leadership culture matches that agenda and is not rooted in outdated or alien practices.

Graham Donaldson, Professor of education.

Graham Donaldson is the former senior chief inspector of education and author of Teaching Scotland's Future.

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