Search for a global blueprint
The logic is simple: if two heads are better than one, then how much better will 140 heads be, all gathered together under one roof, exchanging ideas on leadership? Even better if they are from countries as diverse as Australia, South Africa and Singapore, each with different ideas about how to run a school and how to motivate pupils. Between them, it should be possible to thrash out universal concepts of leadership: to develop a model applicable to all.
This was the theory behind the National College of School Leadership's international conference, held recently at the college's new centre in Nottingham. Delegates spoke of their ideas and innovations, and how others might gain from them.
There was talk of mentoring, of collegiality, of real and virtual communities of heads meeting regularly to swap advice and evaluate each other's performance. Others spoke of inviting pupils to be partners in their own school development: challenging them, as equals, to work for change.
But while some of these innovations are being adopted in many countries, there are doubts about whether they are suitable in all situations. If heads from Britain, the United States and Australia are able to share a common vision of their role, this may say more about the similarities of their circumstances than their differences.
"Transformation and globalisation and looking towards the 21st century mean different things in our context," says Anusha Naidu, of the Gauteng Institute for Curriculum Development in South Africa. "We have chaos in our schools, because of the inequality we inherited. Many are poorly managed. There's been an erosion of confidence and professionalism of the educators and managers."
Before South Africa can enjoy the luxury of debating the comparative merits of communicative shifts and multi-phase modularisation, she says, it needs to achieve basic functionality in its schools. Few township schools have access to a regular supply of electricity, let alone the internet provision required for cross-school networking. Indeed, many lack even the basic amenities - such as desks and a roof - that Western heads see as essential.
"If you focus too strongly on online learning, you further disadvantage people who don't have much now," says Tony Bush, professor of international and comparative education at Reading University. Even low-tech strategies, such as multi-school leadership communities, can be difficult in developing countries.
Nonetheless, schools in developing countries require effective heads as much as western schools do - if not more so. "We know what good school leaders do," says Ted Brierley, of the Australian Secondary Principals'
Association. "They set high expectations and pay attention to supporting pupils and staff. It doesn't matter whether it's a good school or a failing school."
Mr Brierley's association is currently working to establish links with its counterpart in South Africa. Despite vast differences in facilities, he says, the two sets of heads essentially face the same task: to impart knowledge to pupils. "You do what you can," he says. "The 750 principals I saw when I visited South Africa were devoted to their kids. Sure, they would do better with a roof or a phone line, but what's important is that the kids are learning."
But it is not just circumstance that divides heads around the world. Cultural differences can lead to divergent definitions of leadership. For example, predominantly Chinese societies often prefer a strong top-down leadership model. "Principals in Asia are rarely challenged by teachers," says Professor Bush.
"The same model applies in the family. It's patriarchal: you defer to the male leader. People aren't used to participation." Western models of leadership, with their focus on empowering middle-management and questioning authority, are unlikely to appeal.
But, says Professor Bush, the difficulty in exporting certain concepts of leadership does not undermine the usefulness of sharing. Instead of seeking out similarities, heads should celebrate differences, and learn from them. Heads, he believes, will gain best from an exchange of ideas only if they are fully aware of the context in which those ideas are formed.
"We're preparing people for leadership at different levels," he says. " It's always about how well you interpret ideas and apply them to your own context. That's the hard part, and that's the skill leaders need."
In next week's Friday: Wendy Wallace on the British Council's international leadership scheme