Maybe we could all learn more from Machiavelli

11th January 2013 at 00:00
Innovation is a long and difficult process, but an essential one if education is genuinely to improve

He who innovates will have as his enemies all those who are well off under the existing order of things, and only lukewarm supporters in those who might be better off under the new," wrote Niccolo Machiavelli.

Although often caricatured, Machiavelli provides important and enduring insights into human nature. He reminds us that innovation is a long and difficult process that inevitably generates debate and even hostility. Indeed, innovation that is too easily accepted is, arguably, unlikely to lead to significant change. Building a broad base of enthusiastic support remains one of the main challenges for educational leadership as the wide-ranging reform programme upon which Curriculum for Excellence depends seeks to change the face of Scottish education.

Machiavelli's 16th-century prescription for achieving change was strong, forceful leadership that would quell opposition. In today's Scotland, the reform strategy is rooted in a mature educational culture that, while open to change, has recognised the limitations of external prescription. Our complex mix of aspiration, politics and culture requires the more inclusive approach of distributive leadership.

I wonder, however, if we have a sufficiently consistent understanding of what distributive leadership might mean in practice. At one extreme, it can be little more than allocating management responsibilities to promising unpromoted staff - this is not a bad thing in itself but it is not enough and can reinforce simplistic concepts of management and leadership. At the other extreme, it might consist of open-ended encouragement to innovate - potentially inclusive and participative, this carries the risk that everyone's responsibility can become no one's responsibility.

What, then, might characterise and reinforce the kind of leadership culture we need in Scottish education? I have argued consistently that the quality of education is not determined by superficially impressive procedures, but by the daily experience of young people and their achievements. So the first test of leadership must be its positive impact on learning and teaching. That will not be achieved by diktat, but by creating the conditions and climate for staff to give of their best.

A first prerequisite is that staff share clear professional values and a common sense of purpose. The revised GTCS suite of professional standards provides an excellent foundation for such a culture. It seeks to "drive an unswerving personal commitment to all learners' intellectual, social and ethical growth and well-being" through a commitment to social justice, integrity, trust and respect, and professional commitment. Leadership should be rooted in these values and in every teacher's commitment to them. Values should not remain as tacit understandings in the background, but be explicit guides to practice and tests of it.

Second, we need collegiality. Traditionally, teaching was a relatively isolated activity, with the classroom too often forming a kind of defensive carapace. More recently, the idea of teachers working and learning together has begun to take root. All teachers, at all stages of their careers, should see themselves as educators and learners. Every school and learning community contains a deep well of expertise and experience from which professional cooperation and development can draw. Leadership is about fostering a team ethos within which the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

Third, the leadership culture should cultivate professional reflection and inquiry. Self-evaluation at school level and adjustment of practice in light of experience are relatively strong in Scotland. However, we have yet to create the kind of systematic and pervasive culture of personal reflection that seeks challenges to established practice and draws on insights from research.

Teachers are rightly sceptical about exhortations to change but are likely to be more receptive when the evidence comes from their own reflection and that of their colleagues. Leadership needs to create a constructive environment within which analysis of practice is not seen as a threat, or a judgement on competence.

All of this takes vision, but also needs time. Where does professional cooperation and learning sit in national, local authority or school priorities? When staffing ratios are being set or timetables constructed, how often is the need to maximise time for professional engagement a key consideration?

We need much greater flexibility in staffing and in timetables, including the ways of grouping young people into classes, if we are to create the time for teachers to work and learn more cooperatively. This is a difficult sell in a climate where time that is not spent in front of a class is often seen as less productive. Furthermore, teachers themselves need to be seen to value their professional development and to ensure its impact on their practice if others are also to be convinced.

Fundamentally, the most significant challenge facing Professor Petra Wend and the National Implementation Board for Teaching Scotland's Future is to build leadership capacity without reinforcing a culture of passive "followership". We need to achieve educational leadership that promotes inquiry, initiative and professional learning, all geared towards young people's learning.

The task is to establish mechanisms and attitudes that encourage all teachers to think of themselves and their colleagues as leaders of learning, while also identifying and developing those who have the skills to fill formal leadership roles in this kind of environment. We need radical thinking about leadership that stimulates, supports and deploys effectively that most valuable resource in education - the teacher.

Graham Donaldson is professor of education at the University of Glasgow and author of Teaching Scotland's Future.

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