In the whole scheme of things ..

16th January 2009 at 00:00
... who and where are you? Henry Hepburn reports on a leadership programme where a participant's environment is key

The UK's most northerly inhabited island is the inspiration for a leadership programme drawing on Shetland and Orkney's rich histories and landscapes.

The Vikings raped and pillaged, leaving a trail of destruction - or so the stereotype goes. But were they really that bad? Kate Coutts has thrown the question over not to esteemed historians, but to school leaders. They are gathered on Unst to learn about the landscape and heritage of Shetland's most northerly inhabited island, in order to learn about themselves.

Ms Coutts, headteacher at the island's nine-pupil Uyeasound Primary and head of Shetland's leadership development programme, was inspired to come up with Metasaga by a course in Tanzania. Metafari, from "metaphor" and "safari", makes participants reflect on their lives and work by considering the significance of African places and landscapes.

The big idea, says Ms Coutts, is that "you look for a metaphor in your environment and, using that, get that person to describe the leadership where they are". Renamed Metasaga, in keeping with Shetland's heritage of Norse myths, the method showed its worth on Unst last June, during the Valsgarth Leadership Programme involving staff from Shetland and Orkney.

The programme was to include a team-building event, which involved jumping off a cliff into the near-freezing North Atlantic, which did not appeal. So facilitator Ms Coutts had to come up with an alternative. Despite having only used Metasaga with an individual, she decided to try it with a group. She took them to Skaw, the UK's most northerly beach, and asked each member to write a message in the sand and let the sea wash it away towards the Arctic without anyone else seeing it. "Back at the bus, you could see a change in them," said Ms Coutts.

They collected objects from the beach to represent people close to them in their professional or personal lives, and create a still-life of the relationships between them. They were asked if, looking at photographs of their pictures in six months' time, they would still apply.

They threw pebbles into the sea to represent people or things they wanted to remove from their lives, and placed in their pockets objects representing the people most important to them.

The group stopped at the Skidbladner, a replica of a Viking longship abandoned in Shetland waters, and were asked what they had abandoned. They were reminded that Vikings' hands might have been stained with blood, but also created things of beauty. They had to think whether there were "Vikings" in their teams, people with bad reputations but different stories beneath.

They visited Bobby's Bus Shelter, a standard bus stop which was turned into an award-winning tourist attraction. A local boy waited for his school bus at the shelter, and his family had fitted it out with an armchair, curtains, paintings, a television and a hot snacks counter. The group was asked if they had changed something ordinary into something extraordinary, and how they did it.

"You get real depth," says Ms Coutts of the Metasaga approach.

It is more active and participants have more ownership than in other training, where outcomes are often rigid and predetermined, she says. It fitted well with the Scottish Government's support for coaching and mentoring in schools and HMIE's promotion of appreciative inquiry, and the participants felt it was an ideal way of bringing A Curriculum for Excellence to life.

Metasaga has also come to Ms Coutts's school. Pupils have made a trail around Unst and an accompanying guidebook for an enterprise project.

And the method has taken off in Orkney, where assistant education director Marilyn Richards says a well-known leadership programme on Skye was also an influence: "Kate and I had been to Columba 1400 and felt we had something we could use in the same way, to get people to think about who or where they are."

Orkney's six secondary schools are all Schools of Ambition, but only two are on the mainland and education staff had struggled to work out how to strengthen the bonds between them. Metasaga is now providing a sense of common purpose.

Each school is creating a Metasaga after taking part in sessions on visions and values. Pupils are looking at their surrounding area to create a story around six or eight places, while asking "high-level questions". They might take the standing stones of the Ring of Brodgar, erected more than 4,000 years ago by their Neolithic ancestors, and think about what their own legacy will be.

"It's a way of looking at your environment and how it impacts not just on your past but what you have in the present," says Mrs Richards.

The aim is to create a "medley of Metasagas", online and in reality, which the schools will share in March. There will be three sets of questions: for pupils, for staff development, and for tourists. Metasaga is likely to spread, with a version in the Western Isles to be known as Metasgeul. "Metasaga can be set in any environment," says Ms Coutts.


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