Let's talk about freedom of speech

29th May 2015 at 01:00

Good leadership is about placing trust in others, about letting go. That, at least, is the fashionable rhetoric in Scotland.

It sounds great. Rather than maintaining an iron grip on staff and pupils as in bygone times, headteachers are to keep a light touch on the educational tiller, deftly coaxing people in the right general direction but letting them decide how to go about their work.

But surely that ambition to do away with old hierarchies, to power schools by faith rather than fear, is doomed to failure if trust is not also placed in headteachers?

By definition, school leaders are highly able. Few jobs are more daunting than being responsible for the educational prospects of up to a few thousand young people. It is not a role for everyone, and the scale of the challenge is reflected in the recruitment difficulties that often surface when such positions fall vacant.

Those who do take the top job must, under severe pressure, exercise sound judgement and diplomacy at all times - qualities that make them well able to handle contact from the media. It appears, however, that local authorities don't necessarily agree. In some parts of the country, any comments that heads provide to the press - no matter how innocuous the subject, no matter if the story reflects well on the school - must be painstakingly filtered through their authority's communications department.

This scenario is common: TESS contacts a headteacher, he or she talks freely and eloquently about the enquiry, and both sides move on. But a little later a communications officer calls to ask politely why the magazine thought it a good idea to go straight to a principal - or a cowed headteacher phones to say, "Um, sorry, I'm told I shouldn't really have spoken to you without asking permission first."

This is just one example of how headteachers can be hamstrung if their overseeing local authority is unwilling to make the same effort as them to collapse old structures. What's more, in an era when information flows more freely than ever, when schools are supposed to encourage personal enquiry rather than a simple transfer of knowledge, muffling principals' contributions to educational debate seems glaringly anachronistic.

We are not aiming to demonise local authorities: they are staffed with people who, like teachers, want only the best for pupils and whose expertise and support is crucial for schools. And, given the transgressions of some sections of the press, a certain level of nervousness about the media is understandable.

But this kind of attitude does cause problems, as can also be seen in restrictive IT policies that prevent schools from getting the most out of the internet, or in the important educational documents that are impossible to find on council websites.

All of which raises this question: does the instinct to lock down debate and information make controlling and risk-averse local authorities incompatible with modern schools? henry.hepburn@tesglobal.com

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