Leadership - let's get serious

5th December 2008 at 00:00

Last week, I looked at some of the differences between Ontario and Scotland which emerged during a recent Learning and Teaching Scotland study visit. The contrasts are just as apparent in leadership structures and development.

While historical, the fact that Ontario principals and vice-principals are called "administrators" indicates that they have a narrower range of accountabilities than their counterparts in Scotland: the curriculum is more tightly prescribed; they have less control over staff appointments; and there is less focus on stakeholder engagement and self-evaluation.

All new principals and v-ps receive mentoring from experienced principals, but they are not appointed to individual schools and are moved frequently due to demographic changes - v-ps often annually, and principals sometimes after one to three years. This demands a more distributive approach to leadership.

While the district school board has a strong voice, local (elected) municipalities have little control. The most effective boards have been able to sustain a focused improvement plan over a considerable period without energy or resources being redirected. Simply by their size and budget, they seem to be able to sustain a critical mass of curriculum advisers, superintendents and so on and to be able to provide support to schools at a higher level.

On leadership development, a consistent set of values was articulated at all levels from the Ontario deputy minister to classroom teachers, including the teacher union representative. Overall, there seemed to be a more coherent approach. In part, this may reflect the fact that the leadership cadre beyond schools contains many former principals.

We have returned to find that the General Teaching Council for Scotland intends to develop a Standard for (Middle) Leaders, a widening of membership criteria for headteachers' organisations and the recent EIS policy statement and anticipated paper on school leadership from the Scottish Government. We also have the recent OECD report, Improving School Leadership. It offers many pointers to creating effective leadership. To paraphrase 195 pages; in developing our future leaders, we need to place them in environments that systematically expose them to a variety of job assignments and hardships, offer formal training and skills development, and immerse them in 360deg feedback.

I emphasise "hardships" because it is the cognitive dissonance created by such that drives people to develop the knowledge, skills and dispositions which will allow them to succeed at the next stage. Some of our best schools do this and produce successful leaders. As the only show in town, the Scottish Qualification for Headship supports this, but only when the project is challenging enough.

The proposed development of a GTCS standard is welcome, but we need to develop coherent pre-service, induction and in-service programmes to support middle leaders and those who lead outwith formal management structures. We need to think seriously whether our current structures adequately prepare the next generation of headteachers.

In its analysis, the EIS states that "developments to date fall short of a coherent leadership framework or clear strategy". In this context, two OECD observations are pertinent: "Most of the coherent approaches to leadership development have been based on a concerted effort and led by a clear leading institution." And: "What is most important is not the organisation providing the programme but the presence of the prerequisite characteristics for a given situation such as expertise, context, flexibility and alignment."

These are two issues we need to think about if Scotland is to move beyond a piecemeal approach to leadership development.

Paul Thomson is rector of Jordanhill School.

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