Good leadership from unexpected quarter

10th October 2003 at 01:00
There has been lots in the media about leadership recently, what with John Swinney's re-election at the head of the Scottish National Party and question marks over Tony Blair's continuing headship of the Labour Party, not to mention Iain Duncan Smith and the Conservatives.

Leadership in education is also an absorbing issue, not least at a time when new directions are being signalled by Peter Peacock, the Education Minister.

At Oban High, the leadership issue we have been preoccupied by is the selection of this session's head students and their deputes.

We have tried varying methods of selection, including pupil nomination and election, but by far the most effective (and, we feel, fairest) is broadly similar to our staff vacancy process.

We advertise the posts, outlining the main duties and requirements, and invite sixth years to submit application forms. A selection panel including S6 students, teaching staff, a school board member and a senior school manager is convened and candidates are invited to interviews.

This year we asked the candidates to give a three-minute presentation on a related theme. Some used Microsoft PowerPoint software and others preferred to use a flipchart or overhead projection transparencies.

The panel reported that although the content of the presentations varied enormously, the common feature of all of the interviews was their excellent quality. To a boy, and girl, they displayed in-depth knowledge of educational issues at a level which some educationists might struggle to reach, demonstrated creativity of thinking in response to perceived problems and showed a quality of interpersonal skills well beyond their years.

Reaching a decision was the most challenging aspect of the interview panel's work that day. "I wish we had nine posts to fill," my depute said.

Although there was obviously disappointment for some of the candidates, the group now forms our prefect management team.

We have a working lunch together every Friday and at our first meeting they shared with me their views and ideas on what their role could be and how they would like to contribute to Oban High's developments this session.

I'm sure other headteachers can predict what much of the discussion centred on but, once dining room matters and sixth year common room issues were dealt with, they focused (entirely of their own volition) on how they could involve our pupil cohort in a much more meaningful way in decision-making in the school.

They are now going to the first years to elect class representatives for the S1 pupil council and to think about a meaningful agenda for their first council meeting.

I look forward to seeing how they manage this. I've intentionally not attempted to influence their thinking on how they can involve pupils more, in the expectation that they will come up with ideas we have not considered.

And speaking of things we hadn't thought of, there was a message from our discussion for us as teachers and managers. It concerns the gap between what we think we are communicating and what is actually received.

The sixth years are involved in a healthy eating project with the first years and they wondered how the school could equate the policy on smoking with the health push. Since my face must have been a picture, they stated that in their view smoking should be banned from all parts of the school, not just inside.

I replied in no uncertain terms that it was and that we do regular "smoke patrols" around the grounds. All nine of the team genuinely did not know this.

I take from this that we have a great deal more work to do on the smoking front.

To judge by our first meetings, we are going to thoroughly enjoy working with this group.

Linda Kirkwood is headteacher of Oban High, Argyll and ButeComments:

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