Leaders must stand up

31st July 2009 at 01:00
Risk-takers and dreamers will make or break the new curriculum, says leading education director

A dearth of leaders in schools could condemn A Curriculum for Excellence to failure, one of Scotland's most influential education directors has warned.

Aberdeenshire's Bruce Robertson heaped praise on Education Secretary Fiona Hyslop for her role in bringing about curricular reform, when he spoke to the international summer school on school leadership in Edinburgh this week. It was time, he made clear, for schools to stop making excuses and take responsibility for ACfE.

"I really wonder if we have got enough school-based leaders who understand the challenges, but also the opportunities, that are around us," Mr Robertson said.

"Without inspirational leadership at all levels, A Curriculum for Excellence will not deliver," he declared, stressing that leadership was more important than resources in ensuring its success.

While there were plenty of "effective managers", he found "inspirational leaders" thin on the ground and "some real challenges at a middle- management level".

Mr Robertson, who spoke to The TESS after his presentation, was concerned about a lack of "gathering momentum" behind ACfE, and specific about where responsibility lay: "I do think the big obstacles are in individual schools."

He wondered if enough classroom leaders, school leaders and local authority leaders "recognise that our children are growing up in a very different world". The worst-case scenario would be for Scottish schools to "deliver 20th-century outcomes for 21st-century learners".

Mr Robertson gave a significant declaration of support to Ms Hyslop at a time when she and her government colleagues have endured increasing criticism over the progress of ACfE, most recently from one of its architects, Keir Bloomer.

Referring also to Ms Hyslop's Labour predecessor Peter Peacock, he deflected the debate back onto education professionals: "We've been given this opportunity by two brave education ministers - they have delivered."

Mr Robertson - who is a past president of the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland but stressed he was giving his own views - said many reasons were being given to justify failure to engage with ACfE, and called for a more "can-do" attitude.

He pointed to a widespread misapprehension: "Some people still think A Curriculum for Excellence is optional and fail to understand this is Scottish education policy." There was a "fear of taking risks", as teachers had been able to work within comfort zones for decades and old habits were dying hard. "This is a time for risk-takers and dreamers," he said.

It was also "disappointing" that some people were claiming they could not do anything until they knew what the qualifications framework looked like, which Mr Robertson described as the "tail wagging the dog".

Unwieldy structures were in the way of "transformational change": hierarchies were rigid; interdisciplinary work was not sufficiently encouraged; and there was not enough work across the primary and secondary sectors. None of these things would change, he stressed, without a greater focus on leadership.

Ms Hyslop also put the onus on leadership in schools, telling the audience it was "important to build a leadership culture in Scotland", and "successful and sustainable" change had to come "from within". Her message was unequivocal: "What I expect from local authorities and schools is leadership."

Meanwhile, another speaker decried the "myth" of the leader as "a solitary individual who leads the way with his heroism and brilliance". Leadership should spring from all levels, said Warwick Business School's Irwin Turbitt, a former assistant chief constable in Northern Ireland who policed the notorious Drumcree Orange march.

Speaking from an English perspective, Bob Fryer, the Department of Health's chief learning adviser, deemed Scotland to be doing relatively well. He said ACfE placed a greater priority on imagination and creativity than in England. The Scottish Skills Strategy was superior, and "enterprise" had taken on wider meaning than in England, where it represented only business acumen.

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