Heroes don't make leaders
In what amounted to a warning to politicians and heads not to be seduced by the myth of "heroic leaders" who turn round struggling schools, John MacBeath told a conference last week that successful companies were led by people marked by "their self-effacing qualities, their emphasis on giving credit to others, their passion and commitment to their organisation".
Professor MacBeath, who formerly led the Quality in Education Centre at Strathclyde University and now holds the chair of educational leadership at Cambridge University, said that such organisations continued to thrive "because they had built capacity within their organisations and within organisational memory".
He told the conference, organised by the Scottish Educational Leadership Management and Administration Society (SELMAS): "Good schools are built not by heroic leaders whose organisations collapse when they leave, but by leaders whose primary goal is to build capacity with long-term, rather than tactical or short-term, goals in mind."
Professor MacBeath also warned policy-makers not to rely on exam results, "a transient and relatively weak measure", as a sign of a school's effectiveness. Pupil attainment, he suggested, is really on the bottom rung of the ladder when it comes to assessing whether a school is effective or not.
Teacher knowledge and knowledge creation were the precondition for pupils to achieve success. "The school as a learning community is one which survives the transient heroic head, the transitory brilliant teachers, the cohort of pupils who move on leaving their ephemeral measured 'outcomes'
Professor MacBeath argued that "mandated change has been shown time and time again not to work". What worked was change from the bottom up, encouraged, endorsed and challenged from the top - otherwise known as "the rule of the vital few". The "buried treasure" among teachers and pupils should not be ignored.
His conclusion was that leadership had to be distributed throughout a school, what he described as "high leadership density".
"It means that a larger number of people are involved in the work of others, are trusted with information, are involved in decision-making, are exposed to new ideas and are participating in knowledge creation and transfer."