Scots heads can learn from English colleagues

18th September 2009 at 01:00
ACfE success can only happen if headteachers raise their game and become less `compliant'

Original paper headline: Scots heads can learn lessons from English colleagues

Scottish headteachers have come under fire in the past week, with one of their former number breaking ranks to accuse them of being too "compliant" and a leading coach suggesting they were trained for management rather than leadership.

Neal McGowan, the former head of Larbert High, who is now in charge of a secondary school in Oxford, told the annual Scottish leadership conference: "The problem of leadership in Scotland is that headteachers are too compliant.

"They have to be challenging, they have to be rebels, they have to rail against what they disagree with. It's not just teachers who say `tell me what to do and I'll do it'; headteachers think like that as well. There are many examples of outstanding management in Scottish schools, but not of leadership."

Mr McGowan's comments come at a significant time when ministers expect heads to lead the "transformational change" necessary to implement A Curriculum for Excellence. He questioned the chances of this happening, suggesting that heads regarded the height of success as "pleasing HMIE".

His observations follow a gloomy prognosis by Bruce Robertson, director of education in Aberdeenshire and former president of the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland. He told the international summer school on leadership in Edinburgh in July that he doubted the "leadership capacity" in Scottish education, which had serious implications for the success of the new curriculum.

Mr McGowan, who was addressing the Scottish Educational Leadership Management and Administration Society (Selmas), said another problem was that local authorities were "too dominant". Their job should be to ensure equality and consistency, but no more.

Scottish authorities, he said, would argue that schools have control over the curriculum, pedagogy, discipline. But "unless they also have responsibility for things like the length of the school day, time-tabling, structures, in-service days, they will not effect transformational change. These are not just administrative matters; they impact directly on pedagogy and learning".

He contrasted the situation with that in England. "There, the Secretary of State talks directly to headteachers because it's in schools where they see their impact being strongest. In Scotland, ministers talk to directors of education."

In England, Mr McGowan added, schools in difficulty do not get visits from HMIE or education officers; experienced senior teachers are called in "rather like a liner which comes alongside a struggling ship and then sails away when the mission is accomplished".

Another challenge for Scottish heads at the conference came from an experienced coach who told them they needed to move out of their "comfort zone" if they were to display real leadership.

Jenny Campbell, director of Lifetimeswork, said heads were too embroiled in detail and were best at "knowing, doing, fixing" - measurable activities where it was clear what had been achieved. But it was management, not leadership.

She added: "Leadership in terms of influencing the performance of a department or developing leadership in a school was much harder and much less tangible, so heads stay in their comfort zones."

Ms Campbell said the "high-performance mindset" essential for effective leadership was "variable" among Scottish heads, and was often very low. The training they received dealt with the technicalities of the job, whereas what they needed were the skills to build high-performance teams, mobilise talent, lead innovation.

She concluded: "How come education leaders are aiming for such brilliance in their pupils, through A Curriculum for Excellence, but are not providing the same brilliance in their own leadership development"?

These indictments cut little ice with Ken Cunningham, general secretary of School Leaders Scotland. He agreed that the "stifling influence" of central direction had to be removed from schools but added: "History seems to me to record that any major change which has taken place in Scottish education has been delivered at school level, and major disasters averted, because of the leadership shown by senior management in schools".

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