Headteachers go the distance to boost leadership skills

25th March 2016 at 00:00
Leaders argue intensive overseas training courses can be a powerful development tool, but are they worth the cost?

While other heads spent last summer sipping Côtes de Provence in the sunshine, Roland Martin was busy “team building” in the woods with dozens of Texan school leaders.

He brushed shoulders with world-renowned leadership gurus and was forced to trade his “default position” of cynicism for some traditional American enthusiasm.

This was all part of an intensive school leadership course at Harvard University, costing almost £3,000, which he completed to boost his skills before tackling a new headship at the independent City of London Freemen’s School.

And Mr Martin is keen to spread the word: leadership courses abroad – such as those run by top American universities – could prove a great headship recruitment tool in the state sector, he believes.

Principals of American state schools were funded to attend the course, he said, and it was worth the UK government “investing” in sending school leaders on similar sojourns, despite the cost of about £5,000 for a week’s study, including flights and accommodation.

Mr Martin’s plea to see more leaders train overseas comes less than a year after City of Glasgow College spent nearly £50,000 sending its principal Paul Little on an eight-week course in “advanced management” at Harvard Business School. The move attracted criticism from students, but a spokesman said the college was “proud” he had been accepted on to the programme and the whole further education sector in Scotland stood to benefit.

One independent heads’ leader believes that overseas courses could help leaders to “feel valued” and give them “space to think” away from the hurly-burly of school life.

But to many in the state sector, professional development or a sabbatical somewhere as far-flung as Harvard will seem indulgent and the costs eye-watering.

The experience was “transformative”, said Mr Martin, who attended the Leadership: An Evolving Vision course at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He told TES that such courses could provide a unique opportunity for British school leaders. He said that he had “actively used” what he’d learned from at least five of the 10 sessions in his own school, which he joined shortly after completing the course.

“It came at a very good time as I was leaving one school and going to another,” he said. “I found it totally energising. As a head, you give quite a lot. Your reservoir can diminish if you don’t keep trying to top it up.”

Financial constraints

But even in the independent sector, with schools desperate to keep fees low and maintain pupil numbers, finding the resources for such training can be a struggle.

Ian Power, membership secretary at the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference of top private schools, said: “I think that cost and time are key factors and it takes a fairly committed and enlightened governing body to offer a sabbatical and then fund it.”

The numbers tell the story: the Harvard Graduate School of Education said that only 12 British school leaders had attended one of its three leadership-focused courses in the past five years.

Once Mr Martin started at his new school, he set about reviewing its culture, identifying the five key points of focus for the year, and also surveyed parents and pupils. “I was so up for it,” he said. “This course had given me so much. I found it to be transformative.”

He added that it was important not to underestimate the relationships that could be built with people from all over the world, and said he was discussing a potential exchange with a school in Melbourne, Australia.

Mr Martin told TES that he would recommend “identifying 20, 30, 40 [state-school] heads across the country who would benefit from five grand’s worth of investment each – it’s not a lot really, is it? It could also be used as a recruitment tool.”

He explained that he was the only British head on the course, while there were 40 from Texas alone. “Their state department funds heads to go on this training as a matter of course. That’s quite telling,” he added.

Clive Rickart, general secretary of the Society of Heads – the private schools’ body that provided the travel bursary for Mr Martin’s American adventure – said going abroad had a unique effect.

“You have that element of feeling valued, you have got some space away and that freedom of thought by physically removing yourself,” he explained.

‘Deserts’ of provision

But Malcolm Trobe, interim general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, argued that sending a handful of heads abroad was probably not the answer. It was more important, he said, to focus on providing a range of leadership development opportunities around the country – so there were no “deserts” of provision.

“We are about improving the whole system,” he said, “It’s good that people do go abroad and pick up things that can be fed back, but there’s a pressing need for a coherent spectrum of programmes [here].”

And indeed, opportunities at home now abound. For the most ambitious, there are a number of specialist education MBAs (see box, above) as well as a variety of courses overseen by the National College for Teaching and Leadership. The National Professional Qualification for Headship, although no longer compulsory, includes master’s-level study.

The union-backed new Foundation for Leadership in Education, recently covered in TES (“The teaching profession is capable of leading itself”, Insight, 4 March), also aims to quality-assure training courses for leaders.


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