Teaching, and how to manage

20th March 2009 at 00:00

George Bernard Shaw's observation that "England and America are two countries separated by a common language" came to mind a few years ago, when visiting Boston to meet principals from throughout the world. The Americans describe involvement in school leadership as being part of the "administration". For us in the UK, such a description has all kinds of awkward associations with bureaucracy, paperwork and distance from the learning and teaching process.

In my time as an assistant head, depute head and even as headteacher, I was uncomfortable with the title of being a school manager - despite being known as a member of the "school management team". I was - in my mind - first and foremost a teacher and a leader, and any suggestion that I had moved to having a manager's perspective was only grudgingly admitted. Even as a head of service, I struggled to be closely associated with the concept of being a manager - such a term conjures up a distant, procedurally obsessed, hierarchical, budget-dominated and technically-oriented person who has little thought for those in his or her employ, let alone concern for the children we serve.

Yet over the last few years, my position has begun to shift. In working closely with headteachers and social work managers, I have come to see that good management is the bedrock on which good leadership is based. Perhaps we need to reappraise the relationship between management and leadership.

Even a cursory glance through my previous contributions in this column should indicate a personal commitment to a culture where people - at all levels - can innovate and take much more responsibility for creating positive conditions for teaching and learning. In line with that commitment, I'm keen to explore models of practice which shift decision-making to those who actually engage with learners - as opposed to issuing policy diktats from the centre and expecting them to be implemented.

However, I'm equally convinced that the next step in that process must be to help school leaders to become more comfortable with their role as "managers" who facilitate, support and provide space for colleagues, who in turn must take more control over their own practice. The current drive for distributed leadership has significant consequences for the way in which educational leaders have to manage their business.

If people are to have more freedom, they must be clear about the parameters and expectations within which they are working. They need the security of a manager who can share the accountability agenda, and understands and protects the innovative process. If creativity is to flourish, the expectation that it will always be derived from the "top" needs to be changed and seen to change.

In order for this to happen, the manager at all levels has to master the following:

- promote budget transparency and open engagement with all stakeholders about the financial context and policy arena in which we do our business;

- actively engage with the data which indicates the impact of our practice - much more than simply considering attainment data;

- delineate and promote clear line-management responsibilities where colleagues are supported, enabled and provided with permission to take action;

- engage with colleagues whose work does not reach the standards set out in professional codes of practice.

As I have mentioned before, I have learnt a huge amount from my colleagues in social work who don't appear to have the same hang-ups as those of us in education about the need for them to act as "managers". Perhaps it's time for education to take a lead from their example?

Don Ledingham is acting director of education and children's services in East Lothian.

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