Skye's the limit on leadership

20th May 2005 at 01:00
A blueprint for bringing out the best in staff and now students? The Columban code may be winning hearts and minds, writes Iain White

As a senior management team in Govan High, Glasgow, we were unanimous that the headteachers' leadership academy at the Columba 1400 leadership centre on Skye had been the most effective developmental experience of our careers.

Central to the programme was Columba 1400's belief that greatness lies within all of us and the success of the true leader is in developing other leaders by eliciting that greatness.

We had been working with our colleagues on the school staff to put these principles into practice. But to what extent could we do the same with our students?

Our hearts and minds told us that we were dealing with a new definition of leadership, not the apex of the traditional hierarchical pyramid, but at each level in the organisation, with everyone involved at every level.

This being the case, logic told us that the Columba 1400 experience should benefit our pupils. So, we sent 16 to Staffin with four teachers, who worked with them, and two school management team members (myself included) as observers of the centre's ambassadors' academy. The age profile was slanted towards the junior school, with no one going from S5 or S6 and only two from S4.

While we wanted each pupil to gain, develop and grow through the experience, we were also looking for a result for the school in terms of the positive effect these ambassadors would have on the ethos and culture.

The participants were involved in a series of activities to examine the Columban code of responsible leadership: awareness, focus, creativity, integrity, perseverance and service. The tasks were a mix of indoor and outdoor, theoretical workshop and practical activity, thought based and physical.

In the evaluation, the pupils said they felt almost twice as confident at the end of the course, and more than twice as effective in all six areas of the Columban code.

One ambassador said: "I have a lot of plans for myself and I feel as though I am going to go about these plans in a good way. I have been very impressed by the course and loved every minute of it."

This was great to hear but, as school staff, we were also interested in the potential effect on the school, especially allowing the development of skills that would ultimately bring employment and a better quality of life for pupils.

We ran a feedback session with the ambassadors, where they were asked to highlight the important things that happened, what they had learned about themselves, whether they thought that the experience would make a difference to them and what the effect would be on each of them as pupils of the school.

Working in pairs, each was asked to choose the two most important points from about 100. These included confidence, a better attitude, learning new skills, fun, new friendships, being pushed to the limit and sticking with it.

The results were grouped and students came up with the headings "learning", "good relationships", "perseverance" and "service". If this is their blueprint for an effective school experience, we shall all benefit as we strive for it.

We then pushed the ambassadors further, asking what they were going to do with all that they had learned in the context of their future in Govan High.

"Make decisions about the school and make things better," some said. "We should do some of the Columba activities with other pupils and create a bond with the staff as well," said others.

Eight weeks later, they have spoken at one national teachers' conference, been invited to another at the end of May and given a presentation to a whole school assembly. As ambassadors, they have welcomed the large number of visitors and given them a pupils' view of life in Govan High.

One said recently: "I feel part of something bigger, part of a group that means something."

Another added: "We are making a bit of a difference. We try to help people, help the school."

We are often asked about value for money, because the ambassadors' academy is expensive. Our experience demonstrates money well spent. And there is funding around to help. You simply have to go and look for it.

We have a second group of trainee ambassadors going to Staffin in a fortnight's time.

Our first ambassadors are already having an impact on the school. How will the extent of this impact be measured in real terms? I don't know, but maybe, for once, we have to acknowledge that most of the worthwhile things in life are not easy to measure; that clumsy attempts to quantify the important things in life -values, beliefs, commitment, involvement, inclusion and quality - not only devalue them, but also do a disservice to the people who hold them dear.

Iain White is headteacher of Govan High,

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