That old confidence trick

23rd May 2003 at 01:00
Good leaders are blessed with self-assurance and self-esteem. So do Scottish teachers have what it takes? Ian McDonald isn't too sure

There is no shortage of leadership initiatives and some educators bemoan the cult of managerialism. But the performance of the great helmsman is seen as critical to the success of any school. The Scottish Executive's consultation report Continuing Professional Development for Educational Leaders is, apparently, urgently required.

Some might see it as the definitive charter for the self-seeking, promotion chaser, if there are any opportunities post-McCrone. The more cynical might see it as a guide to being a good poodle.

Yet it is a good report, providing lots of practical advice for leadership, ranging from small-scale project leadership in a department to strategic management. But some of the omissions are interesting.

There is no direct reference to a preferred style of management. I attended a management course where the guru ranked successful management styles as follows: top was the charismatic; in second place was the consistent bully; and in third was the inconsistent bully. But that was a few years back.

You will be aware of the "mushroom growing" style of leadership which is alleged to be prevalent in Scotland. This is the one where you are kept in the dark - and occasionally a pail of manure is thrown over you.

It would be fair to conclude that the Scottish Executive's report tends toward the charismatic, with little opportunity for mushroom growing, such is the need to keep everyone involved.

Successful leadership has always been associated with confidence, self-assurance and high self-esteem. But are these not synonyms for arrogance? A search of the report for "confidence" only recorded three hits: l one of the personal abilities of an effective educational leader is to "demonstrate confidence and courage"

* a team leader (for example, a principal teacher) should show "confidence and courage in ensuring good practice is maintained"

* but a strategic leader (for example, a member of a local authority working party) should have "the courage, confidence and commitment to challenge current orthodoxies based on a sound understanding of educational issues".

So what happens if you are not naturally confident or have low self-esteem? No advice is given on developing confidence. You've either got it or you don't.

Are we a nation brimming with self-confidence? One of the arguments advanced to justify the inauspicious bid for the European Football Championships was that hosting a major sporting event would boost our nation's self-esteem. Apparently, those nations which have previously hosted such events have higher levels of self-confidence than us Scots.

ConfidentScotland is a pressure group established by Dr Alex Yellowlees, a prominent psychiatrist and medical director of the Priory Hospital, Glasgow, and Bill McFarlan, a former BBC presenter. They say: "The fact that Scotland has so many ills in terms of sectarianism, levels of domestic violence, mental health problems, high suicide rates among young men, alcoholism and eating disorders, is directly or indirectly connected to low self-esteem."

They further claim: "Scotland has a problem both individually and collectively and we need to recognise that fact and begin to put in place all sorts of programmes to get the ball rolling to address this problem."

On the organisation's website ( it is stated that people with high self-esteem are:

* more physically active and generally healthier

* more self-determining

* more adaptable to change

* more enthusiastic about the success of others

* more able to make balanced judgements.

It seems to be official then, that as a nation we are towards the bottom of the self-esteem league table. I can empathise with this.

Lack of confidence can manifest itself in many ways from - shyness to outrageous cynicism. Too quickly we wrongly classify healthy self-esteem as arrogance or self-seeking.

The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry reported that levels of stress, which are linked to low self-esteem, have doubled in the past 12 years among pupils in the West of Scotland.

It is no better in the USA, where a leading researcher, Robert Reasoner, reports that "the emotional needs of young people today are in a state of crisis. In 30 years we've seen a 300 per cent increase in adolescent suicide and a 1,000 per cent increase in adolescent depression - higher than any other country in the world."

A recent leader in the Scotsman stated: "Schools might put more time into devising ways of raising self-esteem. There used to be old-fashioned things called team games that were good for this." All a bit quaint, isn't it?

So the answer to Scotland's ills is, as always, the schools. But, in reality, the learning environment in schools is nowadays more supportive than ever.

Teachers freely give of their time to attend courses with Jack Black, the Learning Game, the Pacific Institute and others.

Schools are full of initiatives from stress-busting courses and counselling, to supporting lifestyle changes with bottled water in classrooms and fresh fruit. Helpful advice is available at www. And these initiatives will continue. So don't let the school cynics get to you. Remember, they are short of self-esteem.

But what about the teachers? Are they self-selecting and immune from the national malaise? Hardly, when teaching is difficult and often without much job satisfaction.

If I have a difficulty with Continuing Professional Development for Educational Leaders, it is that it paints a picture of perfection. Teachers are not all brimming with high self-esteem. Individuals can have ups and downs. If schools are going to contribute to the dream of a confident Scotland, then don't forget that teachers need to have their self-esteem nourished.

Ian McDonald is former depute director of education in Glasgow

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