What makes Catholic schools high achievers?

14th May 2010 at 01:00
`Community of faith and common values give a foundation when you're looking at curricular change'

Catholic schools have a head start when it comes to Curriculum for Excellence, according to a former director of education.

They achieve "more and better" than non-denominational schools, but "it's not the Holy Ghost descending - there must be a reason," says Michael O'Neill, former education director in North Lanarkshire.

"I think it's easier for Catholic schools because they begin from a community of faith and a set of common values," he told the Catholic Headteachers' Association of Scotland at its annual conference in Crieff last week.

When it came to curricular change, this was an advantage, he said. "You can use Catholic values and community of faith as the building blocks that bring people together. That gives you a foundation when you are looking to curricular change. If you're a non-denominational school, you might have conflicting values and have to build a common sense of purpose, direction and destiny."

But Curriculum for Excellence would "go nowhere" unless headteachers rescued it, he believed.

Heads and deputes were struggling because, up until now, their jobs had been about implementing programmes decided by others. Curriculum for Excellence was about leadership, Mr O'Neill said.

"What is your vision of your school that makes it different? This is the first time directors and heads have been asked to lead, not manage, and a lot of people are struggling after a lifetime of managing and doing what they are told."

But different communities needed different services, he maintained. "You have to start adapting the curriculum to the community you serve."

The most important quality for a good leader was emotional in- telligence, he told the delegates at the conference, entitled "Inspiring Catholic Leaders".

There was a lot of emphasis on distributed leadership and Mr O'Neill agreed that heads should empower staff. But, he added: "If the leader - the head in this case - is not setting the tone, the ethos, the values, the way to operate, then the rest won't happen."

The conference also heard from Tony Finn, chief executive of the General Teaching Council for Scotland (GTCS), and he, too, underlined the importance of leadership, repeating his call for a national leadership programme. "England already has a national college for school leadership," he said. "We often claim Scotland is so far ahead of England and Wales but, maybe in some areas, we are behind them."

GTCS figures pointed to the need to equip a whole generation of new leaders. The number of heads aged over 56 rose from 46 per cent last year to 52 per cent this year, he revealed. And the number of secondary heads aged over 50 rose from 78 per cent last year to 81 per cent this year.

Father Frank Dougan told the Catholic heads to reject today's leadership culture, which was all about power, strength and imposing your will. Instead, the vice-rector of Scots College in Rome urged them to follow Christ's example and recognise that good leadership was about service and sacrifice.


Pros and cons of autonomy

The chief executive of the General Teaching Council for Scotland (GTCS) has questioned whether greater autonomy for schools would lead to better learning and teaching.

Addressing the Catholic heads, Tony Finn urged them to think carefully before endorsing the release of schools from council control, a move that is being explored in East Lothian.

It could have advantages, such as less bureaucracy and a greater freedom over how and when funds were spent, he acknowledged.

But Mr Finn, a former local authority official in Fife, questioned whether all headteachers had the skills that would be required and whether taking care of tasks such as organising the Xerox contract was the best use of their time. "Autonomy could get in the way of the job by you not having time to do the things that are important," he said.

Mr Finn also responded to criticisms from the Scottish Secondary Teachers' Association over the introduction of Scotland's version of England's licence to teach scheme.

The union's annual conference last week heard the GTCS described as "an employers' stooge", and it supported a motion calling for four-yearly re- accreditation for its chief executive. "At my age, I don't care," he joked.

However, he was less enthusiastic about the prospect of five-year fixed- term contracts for headteachers.

In response to a question from Isabelle Boyd, headteacher of Cardinal Newman High in North Lanarkshire, Mr Finn pointed out that headteachers needed longer than five years to effect change: "I'm one for commitment and continuity."

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