Leadership - Critics query Loch Lomond retreat

15th November 2013 at 00:00
Council pays for leaders to learn integrity amid cuts elsewhere

All of Edinburgh's headteachers are to be sent on a pound;2,000 four-day retreat on the banks of Loch Lomond to allow them to reflect on creativity, integrity and the value of relationships.

The City of Edinburgh Council plans to send all 136 of its school leaders to the residential centre after former participants said the experience had transformed their lives and given them the strength to persevere through difficult times.

So far this year, 32 Edinburgh headteachers have been through the leadership course at the Ardoch estate.

The decision comes as Edinburgh City Council is looking to cut pound;16 million from schools and children's services between now and 2017-18. Proposed savings plans include increasing class sizes in English and maths to save pound;1.3 million, and cuts to special school budgets amounting to pound;827,000.

Explaining why the council had decided to invest in the course, a spokesman said it was committed to providing "high-quality leadership development experiences" for its heads.

The retreat in Loch Lomond is based on a similar scheme that used to be run on the Isle of Skye, but that ended several years ago after central government funding was withdrawn.

Maggie Cunningham, chief executive of charity Columba 1400, which runs the retreat, said: "Our programmes are experiential. You won't find much about academic standards or Curriculum for Excellence.

"They are very much about taking an in-depth look at yourself and thinking about who you are and what you are doing, whether you are really doing what you want to be doing and where you might go next."

Tom Rae, headteacher of Tynecastle High, said that when he went through the programme in the spring he did not have any "preconceived ideas and baggage", but added that there had been jokes about how "cultish" the experience might be because of the religious connection: Columba 1400 was founded by the Reverend Norman Drummond and is named after St Columba, the missionary credited with spreading Christianity in modern-day Scotland.

Ultimately, however, Mr Rae said that everyone who took part found it beneficial. He added that he liked the "fantastic environment", getting to know colleagues in a different setting, and the emphasis on outdoor activities and on the values of awareness, focus, creativity, integrity, perseverance and service.

"This really confirmed for me the importance of positive relationships and of keeping working at these, especially in tough times, when there is a lot of change," he said.

The new programme has been devised by a team including two retired secondary headteachers and Lindsey Watt, who attended the original scheme in Skye and has now been seconded to Edinburgh council's children and families department.

The experience caused Ms Watt to re-evaluate her career and ultimately led her to swap Sciennes Primary, where just 10 per cent of students were entitled to free meals, for Castleview Primary in Craigmillar, one of the most deprived areas in Scotland. "I decided to take the skills I'd honed and put them to use in a different place that needed more support," she said.

When Ms Watt started at Castleview in 2005, the school had been judged to be only "fair" in terms of the curriculum, attainment in English and maths, and self-evaluation. But when the school's latest inspection report was published in September, it became only the second institution in Scotland to be rated "excellent" for curriculum since the introduction of CfE.

However, Walter Humes, visiting professor at the University of Stirling's School of Education, said that he had "reservations" about initiatives such as Columba 1400.

"I have no doubt that the experience is personally fulfilling for those who take part. What I think is unproven is that the experience has measurable benefits for the running of schools once course members have returned," he said.

"In the present economic climate, the cost seems hard to justify. There has been a huge amount of hype about leadership, much of it inflated and some of it designed to pass responsibility but not power from policymakers to front-line teaching staff."

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