Wayne's world is no more

26th May 2006 at 01:00
Michael Duffy on three titles which could encourage heads who don't feel like heroes

Leading the Strategically Focused School: success and sustainability. By Brent Davies. Paul Chapman Publishing. pound;21.99

School Leadership in the 21st Century: developing a strategic approach (second edition). By Brent Davies, Linda Ellison and Christopher Bowring-Carr. RoutledgeFalmer. pound;24.99.

Qualities for Effective Leadership: school leaders speak. Edited by E E Davies. Rowman and Littlefield. pound;13.99

One in four headship vacancies is initially unfilled, despite high salaries and even the enticement of knighthoods for some. Maybe we are asking too much, both of our schools and of those who lead them, but there is a sense that "management" in its 1990s connotation - target-driven, prescriptive, managerial - is far from being the answer. Leadership itself is being questioned. There is less confidence in the heroic, transformational figure who can "turn schools around".

For Brent Davies, long established as a researcher in school leadership, the answer is to take a much longer view. Short-term "success" is worthless if it is not sustained. Drawing on recent work with the National College for School Leadership, he argues, not unreasonably, that the key to sustainability is to build a "strategic framework" in the school. In Leading the Strategically Focused School, he outlines how to achieve it.

The trouble with systems, of course, is that they can be too systematic: some readers may jib at the charts and mantras that - until you read the text - make it all seem straightforward. But the secret of leadership, as Davies clearly shows, is to make room in your school for vision and imagination. Too many organisations are over-managed and under-led. There's a lot of good advice here about avoiding that common pitfall, not least by creating in the staffroom and the corridor a culture of casual but always professional conversation. Schools that talk about their work are halfway there.

School Leadership in the 21st Century takes the argument further, testing it against the day-to-day realities of schools as they are and as they could be. This is a revised edition of an influential analysis published eight years ago: implicitly, it recognises that the school leadership context has been rapidly changing. There is less confidence, now, that "we know what works": technological and societal change are transforming both our assumptions and our expectations. So here, too, the emphasis is on strategic change rather than short-term planning and on sustainable development rather than quick-fix transformation.

Contributors to this edition, teachers and heads as well as researchers, are good at what this means in practice: there is a blend of inspiration and experience here that present and potential heads will find helpful and reassuring. Sections on the new standards and competency frameworks and on self-evaluation are likely to be particularly useful.

But the central thrust is that leadership is a matter of principle as much as of practicalities. In his chapter on "the ethical dimension", Christopher Bowring-Carr makes out a persuasive case. Without a clear sense of its values, he says, a school cannot be a real community of learners.

Those values matter more than "efficiency", targets or competition. It takes an ethical leader to articulate them, but it's the task of everyone to live them and uphold them. The ethical leader leads a "collegium", an organisation marked by trust, in which everyone can feel free to "argue, propose, question, challenge".

He recognises that this is no easy task, that there will be conflict and resistance, but he is insistent that "dispersed leadership" can achieve it.

And though he distrusts checklists, he offers practical pointers towards success. One of them, interestingly, is "the sound of laughter". You sense that he knows his schools, and what makes them tick.

The striking thing about Qualities for Effective Leadership - published for the American Association of School Administrators - is how closely it echoes this theme. US school principals are brought up in a different tradition, with more stress on management and supervision, but here they, too, plead for an ethical foundation: a shared vision, in a society dominated by individual achievement and heroics, of the school as community; of leadership built on consent, not power; and of courage to stand against the tide.

This book is very American in style: readable, punchy, with much reference to great leaders past and present, but with an interesting undercurrent of concern. In the face of "dramatic social change, a troubled sea of governance and excessive demands on schools", the need for good school leaders is greater than ever and the supply is shrinking. That sounds like our own experience. In such circumstances, the concept of the leader as superhero is both outmoded and dangerous. We don't need the John Wayne model, thank you, in any of our schools.

See The TES's Leadership pages, starting on page 27 of the main paper

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