Winning strategy?

18th May 2012 at 01:00
Why Scotland must think hard about its next moves to develop school leaders

Strategic leadership is needed more than ever, as Scottish education faces a perfect storm of financial stringency and the biggest upheaval of education in a generation, with the implementation of Curriculum for Excellence. But has Scotland got the answer?

Last year, both the Donaldson and McCormac reports identified school leadership and teacher quality as the most crucial areas for the Scottish education system to address.

Leadership training in Scotland, both for those aspiring for headship, and those already in post, is seen by many as inconsistent and variable across local authorities, however. While some councils have introduced their own schemes, others continue to rely on university-led programmes.

Earlier this year (TESS, 27 January), Deirdre Torrance, programme director of the Scottish Qualification for Headship Unit at the University of Edinburgh, described training for leaders as piecemeal; too often aspiring heads did not receive the right support to make the step up.

Scottish governments over the years have debated a variety of solutions to this problem - from a national framework for leadership training, to an assessment centre to ensure professional standards are shared by heads, to a virtual leadership community.

The creation of a national college to provide support and training for existing and aspiring leaders has also been floated, although so far, no serious efforts have been made to translate words into action.

South of the border, on the other hand, it has been a reality for over a decade. The National College for School Leadership, set up in 2000, has "put a premium on the importance of school leadership", Steve Munby, its chief executive, told TESS.

The best schools are asked by the college to become "national support schools" and help struggling schools, while their heads become "national leaders of education". Support varies from mentoring to staff taking over the other school's departments, to headteachers or business managers taking charge for a while.

Five years into the scheme, there are now about 600 national leaders of education in England.

The college also introduced "teaching schools" recently, along the lines of teaching hospitals.

The chosen schools are "outstanding in teaching and learning and will take a lead role in the supporting and leading of teachers in schools", said Mr Munby. They work with a group of schools to form an alliance, which then has "collective responsibility for initial teacher training and professional development of teachers across the alliance".

The college's statistics seem to confirm its success; it claims that over 150,000 leaders have benefited from its leadership development programme since it opened.

Key stage 2 results of schools which took part in at least one of the college's professional development courses between 2006 and 2010 increased by 3.8 per cent, compared to only 3.5 per cent in schools which had no engagement.

The GCSE results of schools supported by national leaders of education between 2008 and 2010 rose by nearly twice the rate of schools which had not received that support, while the national leaders' own schools also continued to improve.

So could this success story be replicated in Scotland?

In the wake of the McCrone agreement more than a decade ago, Judith McClure, the then headteacher of St George's School for Girls in Edinburgh, led a sub-group on leadership and management pathways, whose work included a visit to England's National College for School Leadership.

She was impressed by its vision and commitment, but the consensus in Scotland was for encouraging all teachers to work on their own leadership via a "collegiate partnership approach", linking authorities with education faculties, HMIE, government and the national CPD team, she said.

Progress has been "patchy" over the years, said Dr McClure, who was convener of SELMAS (Scottish Educational Leadership Management and Administration Society) from 2003-10. But she maintains that a whole- Scotland approach will still be more effective than a central belt college and is putting her faith in the GTCS's review of professional standards and the independent Commission for School Reform, led by Keir Bloomer.

Ken Cunningham, general secretary of School Leaders Scotland, said of the NCSL: "I think it was a very useful thing to set up in England. But I think you have to put that in the context of an education system that is very diverse in its nature and has a huge variety of strengths and weaknesses.

"I think it would be easy to be beguiled into thinking that an equivalent NCSL would be just as effective in Scotland. But actually, I would be less supportive of a national college in Scotland because of the size of our country."

Greg Dempster, general secretary of primary heads' and deputes' union AHDS, said his union had been "very supportive" of the idea of establishing a Scottish national college, but the education landscape had changed.

Education Scotland, now combining inspections with support and development work, should be in a position to fulfil a similar role to England's national college, he suggested.

Funding of a leadership centre would also be a concern in the current climate, said Mr Dempster

The budget for a Scottish national college was unlikely to exceed a 10th of its English counterpart's, added Deirdre Torrance, and that could limit what a Scottish college was able to achieve.

She also highlighted a number of criticisms raised by academics about the work of the NCSL, citing limited demands placed on participants; dominance of practice-focused approaches at the expense of theory and research; and an unhealthy influence from government.

It was important to protect some of the good practice already applied in Scotland, for example around the Scottish Qualification for Headship, she said.

"What we need to do is actually look at what provision we already have at different levels of leadership, look at the various organisations that are contributing to leadership, and identify strengths and weaknesses and develop a framework from that."

Universities here were making a real contribution to leadership training in Scotland, while the "dislocation of the universities" south of the border was a serious issue. To simply replicate the national college would be dangerous and "could actually take us backwards", she said.

John Stodter, general secretary of the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland, said the model south of the border was very much dictated by the absence of support for schools from local authorities and the government.

"I think that is less of an issue in Scotland. Local authorities already use headteachers that are experienced and have respect and credibility within their authority to help, sometimes to intervene, sometimes to manage, schools that are struggling," he said.

Margo Williamson, head of curriculum and service improvement at South Ayrshire Council, said some of the work of the National College was "really pretty splendid, particularly in children's services".

But she felt the Strategic Leadership Development Programme (see below) recently established in Scotland could deliver some of the benefits seen in England, following the launch of the National College.

Consensus appears to be growing that a national framework for leadership, rather than a centre, is the answer for Scotland.

"Just now it is not really an entitlement to get ongoing and continuing professional development. Given that you can reach (the position of headteacher) in your twenties, it's really not acceptable," said Mr Stodter.

By numbers

100,000 - The number of members of the National College for School Leadership

16 - Scottish members

150,000 - The number of school leaders in England who have taken part in the National College's leadership development programmes since 2000

10.6% - The rate of improvement in KS4 results among schools that have engaged in at least one professional development programme between 2006 and 2010

pound;300m - The value in savings and income created for schools by NCSL- qualified school business managers between 2003 and 2009

89% - Proportion of school leaders who agree that the National College supports development of current and future leaders

New directions on the road to rethinking school leadership

One of Graham Donaldson's recommendations in Teaching Scotland's Future - that there should be a scheme for national leaders of education - is often eclipsed by the debate on reform of teacher training.

Such a scheme was set up last November and is being piloted until next month. It will be evaluated by Daniel Murphy at the University of Edinburgh. The Strategic Leadership Development Programme is a joint project, led by the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland, the Virtual Staff College Scotland and the national CPD team, now part of Education Scotland. It has been funded by the Scottish government as part of its response to the Donaldson report.

Thirty participants were selected from 12 local authorities (Shetland, Aberdeen City, Aberdeenshire, Perth and Kinross, Stirling- Clackmannanshire, Edinburgh, South Lanarkshire, West Dunbartonshire, South Ayrshire, Dumfries and Galloway, Argyll and Bute, and East Lothian) for their potential to lead educational thinking and strategic development. They include primary and secondary heads, education managers based in local authorities and educational psychologists.

Participants in the SLDP must complete an emotional intelligence inventory run by the Hay Group, in which the subject asks colleagues for written feedback on his or her leadership style. It has, said programme coordinator Dan McGinty, led to very useful insights.

They must contribute to a learning community with other colleagues on the programme; plan and carry out a piece of learning that will improve children's learning experiences; engage in educational research; and take part in two residential meetings as well as online meetings.

Coaching is delivered in various ways, the most innovative being the "Shetland model", devised by Kate Coutts, head of Nesting Primary in Shetland, who also has an authority-wide role in leadership development. She described it as "basically online speed coaching" as it allows one person to outline their "wicked issue" while the other two in the group type questions and advice in a dialogue box.

"In all the programmes around leadership, whether it's the Scottish Qualification for Headship or the Flexible Route to Headship, we have found in Shetland - as have Orkney and the Western Isles - that we have an issue around isolation. We are not just isolated from the centre of Scotland but from our colleagues in the other islands," she said.

Technology allows her to work with colleagues in her "action learning set" who are hundreds of miles away. And although she acknowledges the high reputation of England's National College, she points out that many heads access that centre through its website, resource materials and residential courses.

"In the current financial situation, the expense of putting non-teaching heads to a centre for a week is restrictive, but when you start to talk about teaching heads you need to provide supply cover. Given our geographical distance and air fares, financially it's just too much," said Mrs Coutts.

Angus Black, head of Gargunnock Primary near Stirling, is a member of Mrs Coutts' online action learning set. While he recognises the value of technology, he argues that you also need to be able to hold face-to-face meetings as they allow you to develop relationships in a way that a Glow meeting does not.

His project over the past five months has been the development of new learning communities within the recently created shared service structure of Stirling and Clackmannanshire councils.

"These are different times - it's all about working very efficiently and effectively and moving from a very traditional cluster model to something which is perhaps a bit more dynamic," he said.

At 38, he is relatively young to be picked out as a potential national leader. He attributes his place in the programme to a recent HMI report, along with a view that embraces partnership working and an awareness of issues at authority and national level.

Ideally, a physical centre for leadership would sit well beside a virtual one, he says. But he is pragmatic.

So is Rodger Hill, an education officer with an ICT and leadership remit at Dumfries and Galloway Council. Because of its rural nature, his authority is also exploiting online technology to deliver leadership courses, so he saw the SLDP as an excellent opportunity.

He believes its reliance on online communication may not have delivered the interaction its organisers had hoped for. While he values the practical benefits of working via an online community, he still thinks there is a place for a physical centre that would get away from the current situation of "32 authorities doing 32 different things on leadership when we are all trying to do the same thing - talent spot".

A seconded secondary depute head who has completed the SQH as well as a master's, Mr Hill has devoted much of his career to leadership development. He points out that for people like himself, there has been little up till now by way of appropriate CPD.

Aileen McLean, a senior education manager at Edinburgh City Council responsible for schools, headteachers' professional review and development and early years education in particular, agrees.

"It's a struggle to find things that will develop them (QIOs and service managers) - and they are so busy. They can't just go away and do master's degrees," she said.

Working on an early years-focused SLDP project alongside her have been two primary heads and the council's service manager for GIRFEC (Getting It Right For Every Child). By supplementing a government questionnaire for parents and going out into the community, they have gained further insights into the needs of "hardly reached" parents.

Mrs McLean was particularly struck by the effectiveness of the emotional intelligence inventory aspect of SLDP and would like to see the tool used more widely in headteacher development.

She and three other senior officers have had Margo Williamson, head of service at South Ayrshire, as their SLDP coach - taking them through the process of looking at "wicked issues".

"It tends to come down to managing people," said Mrs McLean.

These sessions could be done via a Glow Meet, but they had chosen to do them face-to-face.

"We are people - we do need to meet people," she said.

`None of us is as good as all of us'

"Where is Scotland's college of leadership?" asked David Hopkins last week.

The University of London professor of education was speaking on "Leading the Successful School", a conference in Stirling run by the Scottish Centre for Studies in School Administration.

A fan of the philosophy behind Curriculum for Excellence, he was "worried about clarity and coherence" in putting it into practice.

Professor Hopkins used to advise the Westminster government, and recalls Tony Blair asking him to micromanage schools. He nodded when one teacher expressed concern at a letter sent to schools by Education Scotland, whose tone whiffed of the prescriptive tendency that was meant to be a thing of the past.

Most educational reform gets things the wrong way round by redesigning organisations first, Professor Hopkins noted. "Leadership is as close as we can get to a silver bullet in educational reform," he said.

He praised Balfron High's Val Corry and Lindsey Watt, of Castleview Primary in Edinburgh, who led by giving staff and pupils ownership of learning. Some initial top-down leadership worked in struggling schools, he said, but it was not a long-term fix.

"None of us is as good as all of us," was Balfron High's mantra, Val Corry said.

Successful schools are constantly looking for ways to improve further, Professor Hopkins said; they have strong values and high expectations that are applied consistently and never relaxed. School leaders, meanwhile, must have "the ability to generate trust".

Scotland had plenty of schools putting all this into practice, but how good was it at sharing the ideas that worked? Where was the college of leadership?

"Commitment follows confidence," he said; teachers would not buy into new ideas unless they were shown to make a difference to pupils.

Original headline: Straitened times bring strategic leadership into sharper focus

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