We were on the cusp of something great in leadership

4th January 2019 at 00:00
The Scottish College for Educational Leadership was a source of innovation – its recent amalgamation with Education Scotland represents a missed opportunity, writes George Gilchrist

The final chapter in the story of the Scottish College for Educational Leadership (SCEL) was completed late in 2018, with the formal dissolution of its board of directors. I, and many others, have been concerned about the demise of SCEL following education secretary John Swinney’s surprise announcement in 2017 that it was to lose its independence, in order to become another part of Education Scotland.

This part of Mr Swinney’s review and proposed legislative changes for Scottish education was perhaps the most unexpected. The Education Bill, of course, has not progressed through Parliament as planned – and, indeed, may never do so – but the amalgamation of SCEL into Education Scotland continued apace anyway, and the two entities became one in April last year.

SCEL had been established in response to Teaching Scotland’s Future, the landmark 2011 report by former senior chief inspector Graham Donaldson. His recommendations won resounding approval from the sector: all were to be accepted and implemented by the Scottish government.

The Donaldson report had looked at the issues around teacher education and professional learning and development in Scotland, and his final recommendation, number 50, was one of the most exciting. It stated: “A virtual college of school leadership should be developed to improve leadership capacity at all levels within Scottish education.”

Innovation in leadership

That followed the other 49 recommendations, which had also opened the door for Scottish education to seek ways in which senior and experienced leaders could contribute to system-level leadership.

The government set up a taskforce to implement these recommendations, and it was not long before SCEL began to emerge – not as a virtual college, but very much as a real and innovative one. The college began operations in 2014 under the leadership of chief executive Gillian Hamilton, who was brought in from the General Teaching Council for Scotland, and her board.

Whilst the initial focus was on headteachers and school leadership, it soon broadened its scope, offering frameworks, programmes and learning experiences at all levels, as it sought to develop leadership capacity throughout the system. It pushed forward with another Donaldson recommendation for more of the profession to have master’s-level qualifications, and built relationships with universities; this led to the establishment of the successful Into Headship and Excellence In Headship courses and programmes.

I had the good fortune to be a participant in the first SCEL Fellowship programme, aimed at senior leaders and headteachers. In that first year, we worked with world-leading academics and policymakers, such as Donaldson himself, Alma Harris, Andy Hargreaves and Chris Chapman, as well as leaders from other organisations such as Police Scotland and RBS.

Such high-level input continued and developed throughout SCEL’s short period of existence. Its impact and reputation have grown not only in Scotland and the UK, but also internationally. Other countries have come to see what the college has been doing, and the impacts it has achieved. Some countries, such as Wales, have created their own versions based on the work in Scotland.

During all my experiences with SCEL, I was challenged to question the status quo – something that does not happen often enough in Scottish education – and to consider my values and identify improvements I could make in my own practice and performance, as well as how I could support this in others.

Such qualities are enshrined in teaching’s Professional Standards, which can be easy to articulate but harder to action. Nothing was sacred, but any decisions or changes we made were informed by evidence and research, and produced after professional dialogue and challenge from colleagues and knowledgeable supporters.

We did not see our role as rubber-stamping government policy, but as finding ways to better meet the needs of all of our learners, and the system as a whole.

So, it was a shock when, a few weeks before the summer holidays in 2017, it was announced that SCEL was to be no more. Yet again, we seemed to be on the cusp of something innovative in Scotland, with impact across the system, with positive outcomes for learners and families, when the rug was pulled from under our feet. Is it part of the Scottish psyche that we doubt ourselves, even when we are being successful? Could it be that politicians thought SCEL was too independent, too innovative, too challenging to them and others? Who knows? What I and others fear is the loss of independent thought and actions as the SCEL team is absorbed into Education Scotland, which sees its core role as the implementation of government policy.

Only time will tell what the outcomes may be. But I fear we have lost an opportunity to push forward with a different approach and meaningful solutions to the issues that we all wish to address.

I would like to thank everyone at SCEL for what they enabled me personally to achieve, and for their support for teachers and the system as a whole. They have made a difference across the system and for many learners. I only hope that they can continue to do so, when they start to be pulled in all sorts of different directions.

George Gilchrist is a retired head, blogger and fellow of the Scottish College for Educational Leadership

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