Time to redefine headteacher's role

2nd October 2009 at 01:00

School leadership provides the opportunity for highly-satisfying and rewarding personal and professional opportunities, but the evidence is that in many cases this has become the exception, rather than the norm.

We make much of the role of school leadership in Scotland, and its historic importance in delivering change and innovation cannot be understated. However, the reality is that many headteachers feel swamped by necessary, but routine, management and administrative roles; local authority systems dominated by their accountability to inspection and often seen in schools as unhelpfully bureaucratic; line-management models borrowed from an age when managers on factory floors physically oversaw their workforce; and time-consuming mini-inspections by local authority officers so they can demonstrate to HMIE that they are quality-assuring learning.

Simultaneously, a raft of, often desirable, curriculum developments, reports and analysis suggests a current role that can no longer be sustained. Speakers at the recent SELMAS conference spoke of heads being "too embroiled in detail" and "too compliant" (TESS September 18). A fairer analysis would be: too overwhelmed by the plethora of externally- imposed change and bureaucracy. It's time to redefine the headteacher's role so they have the time to exercise real leadership of learning and teaching.

Equally worrying has been the small in number, but incredibly sad, cases of headteachers no longer able to cope with the role. It is perhaps little wonder that the press is full of a "leadership crisis" in schools, and authorities often struggle to fill the posts.

In his book Quality Leadership, Michael Fullan recognises that "principalship itself is not thriving. If anything it is reeling because of heightened expectations and corresponding neglect of re-examining and re-positioning the role suitable to the needs of . the twenty-first century. The fact that the principalship is not improving is partly a problem of individual principals and groups of principals not claiming a greater role, and is also a system failure - that is, insufficient attention by the system to re-examine the principalship in order to make the role more effective for leveraging teacher and student learning".

The role of the headteacher in Scotland is hampered, or less effective than it should be, because of overload and lack of clarity in what the core focus of the role should be.

If we are to enable the creative leadership of learning in Scottish schools, we need to free headteachers from the yoke and language of line management. We need to recognise that their real leadership and creative role is working with their local community, within the overall strategy set by local and national government, to:

- set directions (shared vision and group goals, high performance expectations);

- develop people (individual support, intellectualemotional stimulation, modelling);

- redesign the school organisation (leading learning and teaching, collaborative cultures and structures, building productive relations with parents and the community).

Heads, as Fullan argues, need to claim a greater role and become proactive in working together with local authorities to redefine their roles so that they can create school organisations which genuinely enable them to have time to lead learning and teaching.

And we need to provide real collegiate support, given the immense burdens of responsibility. We make much of the development of coaching models in Scotland, but most headteachers cannot find the time to share their professional challenges in the supportive way that social-work colleagues have, with "supervision" as a job requirement.

If local authorities were to work with headteachers to redefine their role, leaders of school clusterslearning communities could provide coaching "supervision" for each other. At virtually no financial cost, this would give real, local, collegiate, peer support for every headteacher to reinforce leadership and creativity, so potentially reducing the number of tragic cases we have recently seen.

But this, along with other essential role changes, would require a complete re-definition of the leadership role of headteachers. If Scottish education is to deliver a world-class education, now is the time when tough decisions need to be made:

- the role overload and lack of clarity for headteachers need to be resolved if we really want them to do what Standard for Headship identifies as the first two professional actions of headteachers - to lead and manage learning and teaching effectively, and to lead and develop people;

- headteachers need to find the time and the courage to redesign and fight for a redefinition of their role, even when this flies in the face of current local authority or national policy and practice;

- real mechanisms need to be found to support heads and take away the loneliness of leadership and decision making in schools;

- local authorities and the Scottish Government need to find ways of dramatically reducing bureaucratic demands and the amount of externally- imposed change, by eliminating regular local authority school reviews (which are often similar to those of HMIE) and using only the assigned quality improvement officer to a school to explore creative ways of identifying from observation of learning what current standards are, what needs to be improved and the best way to do so.

Let's start working in Scotland for a leadership role for headteachers - and for all leaders in schools and authorities - that will free them from bureaucratic line management accountability models, and allow freedom for school-based leaders of education to become genuinely creative. Then we will really get the best possible learning experience for our children.

Colin Finlayson, a former secondary head in Edinburgh, is a programme facilitator with the Scottish Centre for Studies in School Administration at Edinburgh University. These are personal reflections.

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