How to turn heads into potent leaders

4th January 2008 at 00:00
Government-financed courses give headteachers in the Netherlands more independence to run their schools.

Going dutch on leadership training does not mean picking up half the tab for headteachers in the Netherlands. Instead, they pay nothing and it is the Dutch Government that takes care of the entire cost of a huge retraining programme running for 15 years.

During that time more than 6,000 headteachers and would-be heads have voluntarily embarked on a two-year course to modernise their teaching and turn themselves into effective leaders.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s the Dutch primary education system went through a change, with a levelling-out of positions within schools. The framework became less hierarchical and teachers, rather than being given roles, were allocated tasks which could be changed easily. More importantly, headteachers were given more independence and left alone to lead their schools.

"The system became more flexible," says Anita Burlet, head of the School of Leadership, part of AVS, the headteachers' union in Holland. "A teacher can change tasks and move responsibility.

"But (the system) also transformed the role of headteachers. They needed to be able to lead the school in every aspect."

To accompany this revolution the Dutch education department began investing heavily in retraining, appointing five educational establishments to provide courses. Each consisted of 10 two-day residential courses, about five group meetings a year and a long written assignment in the final year.

Initially only headteachers were invited to do the course, which was fully subsidised, including insurance cover for their schools. After a few years the course was opened to aspiring heads. "It was an intensive course covering all aspects of leadership, including personnel and finance," says Ms Burlet. "Headteachers suddenly had full control of their schools and were able to hire and fire as they liked. They needed the training to help them cope."

A major part of the course has included coaching skills, which can be used in all situations, although in Holland, when a teacher feels a coach is necessary to resolve a problem, an outsider is brought in to deal with it, not the headteacher.

"It is just part of their culture. A headteacher or senior teacher would not coach their staff, as we don't believe that either can benefit when the relationship is unequal," says Ms Burlet. "Coaching is very much part of our culture and has been for many years, but we feel that in certain situations, such as a teacher returning to school after a prolonged absence, the coach needs to be completely impartial and non-judgmental."

Trieneke Van Manen, a colleague of Ms Burlet, adds: "While many teachers may request an outside coach to cope with certain situations, we feel the headteacher will still use his or her coaching skills in the everyday business of running a school. It enables them to provide good leadership within their schools."

Because of this, much of the leadership course has involved peer coaching, but the School of Leadership also uses actors to lead role-playing scenarios to illustrate coaching situations.

The take-up of the course indicates satisfaction among senior teachers.

However, the Dutch government has recently changed its funding arrangements. The creation of larger school boards, which may oversee many schools, means that delivery of CPD is altering. The government is directing the subsidies to the school boards rather than the institutions.

"Over the past 15 years we have retrained most of the teachers who need it," says Ms Burlet. "Now the emphasis has changed. The larger boards are now coming to us and asking us for customised training for their particular teachers."

But the changes have not lessened the reliance on coaching that is fundamental to the programme. Nor has the government taken away the subsidies.

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