Throw away the microwave

6th January 2006 at 00:00
Do you want to be in charge of a results factory, or do you want your pupils to linger on the subjects that interest them? Kate Myers relishes a proposal for wholesome, slow-cooked learning

Sustainable Leadership By Andy Hargreaves and Dean Fink Jossey Bass Wiley pound;14.50

In 2001 the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development made a series of predictions about state schools: one of these was "meltdown", in which only those teachers and students unable to find or afford alternatives would stay in the public sector. Successive UK governments have tried to prevent this potential collapse, particularly by encouraging the middle classes to support the state system and by sending in "superheads" to save so-called failing schools. But quick fixes on their own won't prevent the OECD's doomsday scenario from becoming reality; if we are serious about maintaining a world-class public education system, we need a sophisticated, long-term approach to leadership that embeds effective values and principles in our schools.

For Hargreaves and Fink, sustainable leadership is about nurturing, encouraging and developing deep learning for all, now and in the future.

This might sound abstract, but the authors skilfully use case studies, many from the UK, to illustrate these concepts in their accessible, affirming and challenging book, incorporating practical guidance for practitioners and policy-makers.

They identify seven principles that underpin sustainable leadership: depth, length, breadth, justice, diversity, resourcefulness and conservation.

Hargreaves and Fink are concerned about the excesses of standardised testing and the concentration on improving literacy and maths scores to the exclusion of everything else. They say learning must come before testing.

They are not against targets in principle, but believe they should be developed by teachers, students and parents working together, rather than imposed by outside bodies.

The first principle, depth, refers to the sense of moral purpose that underlies good leadership. Learning is at the centre of everything leaders do; all children are entitled to "deep" and "broad" personalised learning.

The authors argue that there are three vital elements to this experience: rigour, relevance and relationships.

They quote Elliott Eisner, professor of education at Stanford University, who believes that "efficiency" is a word we use about tasks that we don't want to do. What we enjoy most we linger over; we need, therefore, to make space for "slow knowing" and to prevent our schools from becoming "fast school nations", or learning factories. Subjected to a barrage of tests, "fast school" children have less time to discuss and reflect upon their learning as they are pushed to ever improving performance.

Hargreaves and Fink also quote Maurice Holt, emeritus professor at Colorado University, who suggests that slow schools, in which there is time to understand as well as memorise, attend to philosophy, tradition, community and moral choices. Professor Holt argues that slow schools are like slow food: slow knowing is cooked, not microwaved.

Length, the second principle, describes the notion of enduring improvement and the need for succession planning and management. Rather than grooming one person to succeed to the top job, schools should create a culture of leadership development.

The third principle, breadth, emphasises the importance of distributed and shared leadership, the ultimate goal being for schools to become professional learning communities. This chapter includes a critique of the Hay Group's theory of five dimensions of distributed leadership and suggests an alternative model: a thermometer, with the temperature ranging from anarchy (too hot) to autocracy (too cold).

Principle four is about justice. Sustainable leadership involves sharing knowledge and resources with neighbouring schools and the local community.

We are warned about schools that succeed to the detriment of others. When the most aspirational students and the best teachers and leaders are drawn to high-profile institutions, they drain away from the rest. What leaders do in one school affects students and teachers in others nearby. So sustainability is also about serving the wider environment. The authors suggest that if we look at schools as related individuals rather than as interconnected systems, then many leadership and improvement strategies become unjust and unsustainable.

In the discussion on diversity, Hargreaves and Fink explain that the two important functions of biodiversity - resilience and flexibility in the face of changes and threats - are equally central to sustainable leadership. Renewal of resources begins with restraint: rather than exploiting teachers' and leaders' energy reserves, we should conserve their strength and augment it with additional human and financial resources. But they also emphasise the importance of keeping teachers invigorated and maintaining their sense of purpose; they note the demotivating and debilitating effects of "naming and shaming" and "repetitive change syndrome" (too many innovations being thrown at teachers in too short a time). This chapter also includes a fascinating discussion about the importance of trust: the authors believe that trust is one of the three sources of renewal, the others being confidence and emotion.

The final principle is conservation: sustainable leadership respects and builds on the past to create a better future. The school's collective wisdom and memory are vital to this process. Instead of treating older teachers as disposable, we are advised to see them as renewable resources; we should also staff schools with teachers who have a range of experience, not only the young. I particularly liked the advice about auditing the school's collective memory by drawing a timeline and asking staff to put their name along it at the point they joined the school, then to tell stories about critical incidents and important innovations they have dealt with.

The last chapter includes an affectionate spat with the authors' friend and former colleague, Michael Fullan. About the only issue on which they disagree is the value of externally imposed, short-term targets. For Hargreaves and Fink, such targets are incompatible with long-term reform.

For Fullan, they are the new reality. Read the book to find out more about this, and much more. Highly recommended.

Kate Myers is senior associate in leadership for learning at the University of Cambridge

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