Finally, someone shows the way on leaders' education

15th April 2011 at 01:00
Heads and schools will benefit greatly from the Donaldson report's proposal for a virtual college of school leadership

I am really excited by Graham Donaldson's report on continuing professional development for experienced headteachers. The recommendation of a virtual college of school leadership is a relief, as it will provide a greater range of CPD for experienced heads beyond the Scottish Qualification for Headship and a means by which they can contribute to the wider system.

At last, someone from within the profession is saying this clearly. As an executive coach working with school leaders, I have voiced the same needs and given ideas on how they might be met, but often felt they were dismissed as being from outside. Surely other sectoral experience can be used?

I believe one of the most important objectives should be to make CPD for headteachers desirable. It's difficult to take time out. It's difficult to see the relevance to the local context of the school. Guest speakers might inspire but their messages can seem far from current reality. And how can heads bring any learning back and make it happen? Time and energy is required to do this, and these are not readily available to people who already work 60-70 hours a week.

Research by the International Institute for Management Development in Switzerland states that leadership education has to be high impact for it to "stick". Old approaches to executive development, from the academically-based to the use of multimedia, to the guest speaker sent in to liven things up, are not adequate. Worldwide research into executive education shows four fundamentals that could be missing from current educational leadership development: emotion; energy; context and full multi-dimensional learning.

This means, at a systemic or programme level, ensuring that learning is centred on genuine personal engagement by designing and managing the energy and emotion of the structure and the relationships of educators, learners and peer groups. It means ensuring a real-world context - it's not just about using relevant examples, but facilitating emotional engagement and suggesting new ways to turn learning into action.

It also means the right content for the right level. Senior executives benefit most when they can bring their own experience into the room, and what they look for is path-finding and execution, not problem-solving or skill-building, which might be more useful for the less experienced.

Finally, it means three-dimensional learning - building knowledge, building emotional intelligence and skills, and embedding learning through action-based application and follow-ups.

So how could this play out in education? Most importantly, by co-creating a framework for consistency around leadership qualities and pathways. This would consist of a new set of leadership qualities, leadership pathways, both central and local processes to produce real-life examples of how to bring these alive, consistent tools such as 360-degree evaluation, and a common performance contract.

I hear negative views of a common framework, which assume it's a common way of doing everything and therefore not taking the local context into account. But it can be light-touch and motivating, and supported at low cost through the virtual college idea.

The framework needs to take leaders beyond the Standards for Headship which are so focused on management of the efficient school, to focus on leadership of people, of change, of ideas, of performance, of impact.

The virtual hub can offer stimuli around the most stretching aspects of the framework, but it would really come alive through local communities of practice. Donaldson quotes the 2007 McKinsey report, which found that the best professional learning communities were ones that analyse, research, share, articulate, observe and mentor one another. Why not create this for headteachers and members of the senior management team? Why not have a locally-oriented group whose purpose is learning about leadership?

I advocate group coaching andor action learning sets as ways of ensuring that learning is embedded personally and within the local schools. Both are cost-effective ways of offering development. The group would work on common challenges, supported via models in the virtual hub.

The framework would also help to implant two important requirements of leadership today: excellent self-evaluation skills and a balance between all aspects of running and sustaining the energies of a school.

What better means for self-evaluation to become part of the culture than transparent 360-degree evaluation for all heads and senior management teams? It would raise accountability to live by the leadership qualities and use the consistent framework to ensure that any patterns of skillsexperience gaps would become clear and more easily addressed.

A framework process could be a serious attempt to improve the school's self-evaluation skills by underpinning it with evaluation of the school leadership. Ownership of leadership would rise and leaders would be able to say, "do as I do, not just what I say to do".

Also, consider a head's performance contract based on the framework. This might offer a genuine opportunity for striking the appropriate balance across all aspects of running the school: those seen from the outside (parent and community stakeholders, the budget, attainment) versus those seen from the inside (learning and teaching, vision, strategy and capacity building). Too often, I meet heads who feel under pressure to drive attainment or budget at the expense of other aspects within the system.

Leadership involves all of these things, and the underpinning pillars of vision, strategy and capacity building are crucial to enabling the whole system to work together. My experience of these pillars is that they are not afforded due consideration because of the fire-fighting that goes on.

Lastly, the framework would help hold suppliers and partners to account for delivering fully into the whole system and not exploit its fragmented nature. The whole system would gain more for less.

Jenny Campbell, Executive coach

Jenny Campbell is a director of lifetimeswork.

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