The Popeye approach to school leadership

16th May 2014 at 01:00

Popeye, Mr Chips, Aretha Franklin, John F Kennedy, Mother Teresa and the Pope would make for an interesting dinner party. All six were mentioned at an education conference in Scotland last week by speakers who also made a distracting number of references to food, from pizza to Mars bars. The theme of the event, however, was not fantasy dinner parties but leadership.

Some of those role models were unsurprising, given that the setting was the annual meeting of the Catholic Headteachers' Association of Scotland.

Popeye was in there as an allegory for faith, with spinach representing the grace that all believers need in order to build up their metaphorical biceps.

Mr Chips and Aretha were used to illustrate the notion of "teaching with soul", which was how the Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh, the Most Reverend Leo Cushley, translated the current pope's notion of "servant-leadership".

After working at the Vatican under both Pope Francis and his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI (also known as God's rottweiler), the archbishop was able to offer insight into two different leaders.

Telling the headteachers gathered in Crieff for the event that they were "the most important Catholics in the country", he offered them the very same advice that Pope Francis imparted to him when he left Rome to assume the role in Scotland. It was, he said, pretty simple: "Be firm but gentle. Tough love, with the emphasis on love."

Yet being a good leader is anything but easy sometimes, as the church's ongoing struggle to address widespread allegations of sexual abuse has shown.

Later in the conference, headteachers complained that in some parishes, schools were increasingly left to provide young people with religious education because priests were either unwilling or unable to help (see pages 7-8). The Right Reverend John Keenan, Bishop of Paisley, urged more school leaders to speak out when the issue was raised and pledged to help find a solution.

Although religious teaching and guidance is far more important in faith schools than others, every headteacher has a demanding role to play in ensuring that all their pupils obtain the best possible all-round education.

Politics can also be a tricky subject to negotiate. With the independence referendum fast approaching, the historic right to vote awarded to 16- and 17-year-olds represents a fresh opportunity for pupils to learn about a range of issues and make informed choices about the future of their country.

Chatting later at the conference dinner, one headteacher - whose school is in an SNP area - admitted that he had decided not to address the referendum at all for fear of allegations of being partisan.

I don't think it was a decision he took at all lightly, but being firm yet gentle only works as a leadership style if both elements are adopted with equal conviction. Maybe what's really needed, whether you believe in God or not, is a bit more spinach.

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