School leaders are the ones who have to make political reforms work but too often they are not consulted, says Danny Murphy
Good school leadership is essential, so the inspectorate, the Scottish Executive and local authorities tell us, if we are to realise the wide-ranging and inspiring ambitions expressed in our national education priorities. Yet there have been comparatively few independent studies of the role of the headteacher in Scotland.
In 2002, the Centre for Educational Leadership at Edinburgh University was invited by researchers in New Zealand and Australia to copy a study which they had undertaken into the role of secondary school principals in their two systems. The 153 secondary heads and deputes in this Scottish sample have high levels of job satisfaction, but also experience role conflict and ambiguity. They find balancing priorities difficult because of their unabating work overload, typically 50 or 60-plus hours a week.
Although the hours have not increased recently, pressure has. This is related to the increasingly diverse demands of their role. They constantly find themselves spending more time than they consider valuable or desirable in operational, reactive management arising from situations in school and from the administrative requirements of their employers, when they would greatly prefer to give more time to strategic, educational and curriculum leadership.
Although they would like to see more coherent programmes of support for their work, they do not see professional development as a panacea. No matter how much they develop, there is still too much to be done. This picture - of highly committed and satisfied professionals who none the less feel overloaded and constantly drawn into managerial activities which take them away from their professional responsibilities - is remarkably similar to the parallel studies carried out in quite different contexts (New Zealand and Queensland). Although generally very positive about their job and about the potential of education to make a difference, Scottish school leaders appear to be ambivalent about the future. This centres on three main areas - the national agreement and its implementation, the operation of local authorities and current national priorities.
Aspects of the national agreement are seen as positive. The new environment of continuing professional development (including arrangements for probation) and the potential of more flexible management structures are supported. However, real concerns are expressed by those who have to make the changes work in schools, in particular about arrangements for pastoral care, about recruitment and career progression and about morale (this was before "job-sizing" hit the streets).
Respondents varied greatly in their feelings about local authorities. Some of this variation may be due to individual factors, some to do with particular authorities. None the less it is remarkable that so many (48 per cent) felt able to agree or strongly agree with the statement "my local authority doesn't add value; it takes it away by introducing an unnecessary layer of bureaucracy".
In at least some authorities, it appears that teamwork still has some way to go. Moreover a large majority of the respondents see themselves as professionals first and middle managers second, with 70 per cent stating that they agree or strongly agree.
Finally respondents seem generally a bit cautious about the strategic context represented in the new improvement framework and the subsequent national debate and priorities. Heads seem to be more interested in the practice than in the rhetoric. Extra resourcing was appreciated. There was a general recognition of the value of the attainment agenda (albeit concern that measurement should be based on reliable and valid figures of comparison) alongside support for the democratic values that national priorities promote.
This was balanced by concern about continuing problems with behaviour, the pressures introduced by inclusion and the tensions inherent in the sometimes competing expectations which national priorities summarise.
Overall the survey bears ample testimony to the professional commitment of senior school leaders to the young people in our schools. But these professional voices from the field are saying, "this is more difficult than you think, listen to us". A lot of the debate in Scottish educational policy circles is political, not professional.
In some authorities, headteachers are banned from raising concerns about policy with parents or pupils in their school communities. Yet headteachers and deputes live on a daily basis with the tensions involved. If Scottish education is to move from rhetoric to reality, it is vital that their experience is more fully articulated and their insights incorporated into our planning.
Danny Murphy has, until this week, been director of the Centre for Educational Leadership in Edinburgh University. The survey method and results are more fully reported on the CEL website (www.cel.ed.ac.uk - follow the link to "views and reports").