Still playing follow my leader

14th December 2007 at 00:00
I see the Headteachers' Association of Scotland is to re-brand itself as School Leaders Scotland (The TESS, November 23). A few years ago, the then British Educational Management and Administration Society proposed changing its name to the British Educational Leadership, Management and Administration Society. I opposed this move on the grounds that a professional organisation should not jump to a government agenda. However, not for the first time, I found myself in a minority and the name change was duly approved.

Since then, the leadership bandwagon has gained momentum, fuelled by expensive consultants who claim to hold the secrets of management, and gullible followers who are susceptible to a happy-clappy style of presentation that has much in common with religious revivalism.

The current emphasis on leadership can be seen as part of a broad political strategy to devolve responsibility - though, crucially, not power - to front-line staff in education, health, social work and other public services. This is usually presented as an exercise in "empowerment". In fact, politicians and bureaucrats at national and local government levels continue to make the key policy decisions, while front-line staff are held accountable for their success or failure. Buck-passing is, of course, a well-established technique among the elite.

In Scotland, we have had an extended discussion about the desirable leadership qualities of headteachers and the problems of recruiting and retaining them. Training programmes have ranged from the Scottish Qualification for Headship to Columba 1400. The former has been seen by some as too academic, giving insufficient weight to hands-on experience. The latter is highly experiential, with course members being set challenging tasks that call for determination, initiative and teamwork. I am sure it is personally rewarding, but the evidence that it leads to sustained systemic benefits when participants return to their own institutions is, at best, inconclusive.

My scepticism derives from a belief that leadership qualities are immensely varied and highly dependent on context. What works in one situation may not be at all appropriate in another. Some of England's so-called "super heads", who had a successful track record before their appointment, resigned after a short time because it transpired that their "tried and tested methods" simply didn't work somewhere different.

The practice of importing leadership expertise from business and industry is also suspect. Running a school is not the same as manufacturing, distributing or retailing goods. The "outputs" are more complex and varied, the means by which aims can be achieved are subject to ethical constraints, and much must be achieved via consent and trust rather than managerial directive.

I welcome the focus on learning in the recent HMIE document Leadership for Learning, in contrast with the usual emphasis on management of systems and structures. It might provide heads with a justification for sometimes saying no to the bureaucratic demands of central and local government, which aren't always supportive of schools' learning aims.

Readers of a certain vintage may be tempted to remind me that I used the word leadership in the title of one of my early publications - The Leadership Class in Scottish Education (1986). There was, however, an important difference from the current discourse - I was using the term ironically.

Walter Humes is research professor in education at the University of the West of Scotland.

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