Take the risk and take the blame?

17th September 2004 at 01:00
Peter Peacock's bid to give a lead on leadership still has to overcome the doubters, reports Neil Munro.

The Education Minister signalled last week that improvements in school leadership and management will be the single most important ingredient for success if his secondary school reforms are to work.

Peter Peacock also revealed that forthcoming moves to develop leadership capacity in schools will call on experts from around the world.

Unusually for a minister, Mr Peacock stayed to listen to the discussion that followed at a conference organised by the Scottish Educational Leadership Management and Administration Society (SELMAS). He heard from a host of key figures that a series of fundamental barriers remained if leadership is to be given full rein - including the "blame culture" and an aversion by schools to taking risks.

Walter Humes of Aberdeen University told him bluntly: "There is a crisis of confidence in leadership in public life at all levels."

Professor Humes did not spare further blushes and added: "Real leadership takes time to develop. It springs not from grand vision statements but from the daily practice of professional commitment, based on key values and ethical principles."

Leadership also requires professional courage, he said. "For too long, Scottish education has suffered from a culture of compliance rather than commitment, which has led to a marginalising of those other voices who dare to differ. We have some way to go in reaching the levels of professional trust that would improve the position."

The theme was taken up by Matthew MacIver, registrar of the General Teaching Council for Scotland, who cited the reluctance of teachers to put their heads above the parapet. Mr MacIver said the response from teachers to coverage in the council's magazine of issues such as pupil behaviour management and inclusion had been considerable - but every single one had asked for the writer's name and address not to be published.

"We are not developing leadership in Scottish schools and classrooms," Mr MacIver said. "We are encouraging a culture of dependency, which I find profoundly worrying. I really cringe when I hear teachers say: 'Just tell me what you want me to do and I'll do it.' Is that the climate in which we want to try to encourage leadership? Of course not."

Mr MacIver said teachers felt disempowered. He suggested the success of the new teacher induction scheme should be built on, with basic courses on leadership introduced early on so that teachers become more willing to take on responsibility.

Judith Gillespie, development manager of the Scottish Parent Teacher Council, called for more risk to be introduced into schools. "We are busy eliminating it," Mrs Gillespie said, "and not just because of the fear of press headlines but because of the ever present threat of litigation."

Mrs Gillespie also called into question the notion that outcomes are fine providing the end result is successful. "But risk means allowing pupils to fail; otherwise how will they know the difference between success and failure?"

Pamela Munn, dean of the education faculty at Edinburgh University, suggested that developing school leadership meant people must be prepared to give up some of their power. "That is what this is really all about," Professor Munn said.

She added: "If this brave new Scotland requires people to lead with a vision, to motivate others, to empower people, to contest goals and objectives, what happens when things go wrong?"

The present approach, Professor Munn said, was based on audit trails where decisions that have been made can be traced back. "But are we prepared to allow people to take risks and not to chop their heads off when things go wrong - as they will?"

Donald Matheson, headteacher of Hermitage Academy in Helensburgh, said there was a real issue for him as an accountable headteacher. He did not want to "clear up a collective mess" if he was forced to delegate decision-making.

Philip Rycroft, head of the schools group at the Scottish Executive Education Department, struck a determined note - in the presence of his political boss -about giving schools more autonomy and allowing headteachers to have more responsibility for exercising leadership.

But, Mr Rycroft said, that will require a "tough accountability framework", albeit one devoid of inappropriate target-setting and "perverse incentives" which undermine what people are trying to do. The main tool the Executive uses for accountability is the improvement framework, looking at results across all the national priorities - "not in a way that is dominated by attainment".

Leader 22

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