Hunting for a new generation of heads

19th March 2004 at 00:00
A report produced for the National College for School Leadership in England, but based on UK-wide evidence, has predicted a crisis in the recruitment of future school leaders (TESS, February 20). The authors suggest that not enough is being done to identify talented individuals early in their careers, give them responsibility, monitor their development and equip them to become headteachers.

This is despite the existence of formal training programmes (such as the Scottish Qualification for Headship). What is needed, it is claimed, is systematic action to ensure that there is a steady supply of people able to take on the onerous challenge of leading a school.

Some teachers will be rather sceptical about this. Their response is likely to be similar to those police officers who resent "fast-track" promotion schemes for graduates. For them, credibility depends on a good number of years of front-line experience at the sharp end of policing. Similarly, in teaching, the argument would be that there is no substitute for an extended spell in the classroom so that the demands of the job are properly understood. Without this, headteachers would find it hard to secure the respect and co-operation of their staff.

It is not difficult to see the force of this argument but, in itself, it is not compelling. Take the question of experience. Some teachers repeat the same experience year after year but show little capacity to change. In extreme cases they have stopped learning and, as a result, often become extremely disenchanted.

Conversely, there are young teachers with only a few years' experience who are constantly extending their knowledge and skills and who are keen to take on additional responsibilities. These younger teachers represent a much better prospect in terms of leadership potential than their more experienced colleagues.

There are other considerations. Competence in the classroom may be a necessary condition for school leadership but it is not, in itself, a sufficient condition. Being in charge of a school calls for a whole range of additional qualities. The successful headteacher must be a strategic thinker, well informed about the changing policy agenda, capable of managing staff (including those "difficult" colleagues no school is without), politically astute, calm in a crisis and adept at managing resources. It is a tall order and such a repertoire of skills takes time and opportunity to develop - thus the case for the early identification of talent which the report recommends.

I would, however, insert an important qualification. Timing is critical.

Give someone too much responsibility too soon and they run the risk of buckling under the pressure or taking ill-judged decisions which alienate colleagues. Equally, failing to recognise potential at the right time can lead to people who have a lot to contribute becoming cynical and disillusioned. Steering a course between these two risks requires acute powers of perception and it is not surprising that mistakes are sometimes made.

If I reflect on my own career in these terms, I can recognise a point at which I made an important decision which opened up possibilities that almost certainly would not have happened otherwise. I stayed too long in one post, hoping that my contribution would eventually be recognised. It was not and I decided to find another job.

As a result, the past 10 years have been the most professionally rewarding of my life. Advancement has come relatively late for me but that need not be the case for everyone.

Educational leaders should see the identification of possible successors as one of their main responsibilities. However, that process must be based on recognition of real merit, not a discredited system of patronage.

Walter Humes is professor of education and head of educational studies at Strathclyde University.

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