Learning leadership by example;Books

19th March 1999 at 00:00
EFFECTIVE SCHOOL LEADERSHIP - Responding to Change. John MacBeath (Editor). Paul Chapman Publishing. pound;45 hb pound;13.99 pb.

Anyone picking up this relatively slim volume in the hope of instant personal improvement through a number of handy hints - a teach yourself school leadership - will not find ready answers here. However, the book's observations are solidly and practically based on in-depth action research in schools in four countries.

Fascinating cross-referencing of the views of principals, teachers, pupils, parents and governors demonstrates graphically the difference between efficient management and effective leadership.

The central theme is that effective leadership emanates from a series of qualities that go beyond management competencies. For this reason alone, it is worth reading. The serving headteacher, the aspiring principal, the uncertain governor and the training provider will all find something here to provoke thought, to shape practice or to reassure.

It is the focus on the importance of the quality of relationships which will be reassuring to the reader, who may feel increasingly deskilled by the drive to judge effective schools solely by competencies and the measureable.

The research upon which the book is based indicates a number of key qualities in effective leaders. Listening, vision, inspiration and approachability all ranked highly with heads, parents, governors and older students in all the participating countries. Younger pupils used words such as "kind, praising, understanding, happy, cheerful, fair" to identify qualities that effective heads exhibit.

The research confirms the diverse nature of schools ("what works in one school doesn't necessarily work in another") and the existence of an intricate network of stakeholders who are not always seeking the same thing from their schools and those who lead them. To have research evidence which backs up common sense and professional intuition and extends the understanding is most beneficial.

David Hopkins's analogy of schools being "sailed not driven" exemplifies the approach to effective leadership which the research subsequently supports .

There is extensive coverage of a two-year study in Denmark, Scotland, England and Australia. This is useful for the empirical evidence it provides.

The research indicates that the crucial factor in effectiveness is the ability of the school leader to sustain relationships. There is also a need to demonstrate clear personal and professional values, to attend to local needs while managing external priorities and to have the ability to live withcontradictions.

Works on school management often seem to ignore some of the significant ethical challenges to leaders. It is good, therefore, to see a chapter on ethical challenges and the dilemmas resulting from them. These often involve setting external requirements against internally held beliefs. For someone in a leadership position faced with such dilemmas, the knowledge that they are not alone will aid confidence - even if there are no ready-made solutions to the difficulties themselves.

Jim Jack

* The writer is head of Richmond School, Richmond, North Yorkshire

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