Sir Michael Wilshaw, Her Majesty’s chief inspector of schools, said last week that: "We need headteachers in our secondary schools that are going to be really transformative leaders, and we have not got enough of them. We need battlers, we need bruisers, we need battleaxes who are going to fight the good fight and are absolutely determined to get high standards. We have got too many appeasers in our secondary schools who are prepared to put up with mediocrity."
This statement contains a category error. Transformative leaders are not “battlers, bruisers or battleaxes.”
“Battlers, bruisers and battleaxes” fall more correctly into the theory of transactional leadership, which assumes that people are motivated by reward and punishments. Transactional leaders work within a chain of command using a control and command style, not only in relation to staff but also in relation to children and young people. In this school of thought, children and staff simply do what they are told.
The transformative leader however, starts with the development of a vision, a view of the future that will excite and inspire. The transformative leader leads not by command and control, but through intellect and passion. The transformative leader open doors, helps children and staff find intrinsic motivation and their own moral purpose.
This is not appeasing, gratifying or mollifying. It is determined, intelligent and confident. Transformative leaders will stand up to be counted. They show by their attitudes and actions a model of good social behaviour. The transformative leader is a person with integrity and commitment; a person who leads by example and since alliteration seems to be the order of the day, shows care, concern, and consistency. This is ethical leadership.
The shibboleth of mediocrity
It has become commonplace in some quarters to argue that our education system is defined by mediocrity. This is outdated, inaccurate and untruthful. The evidence suggests otherwise – that our education system is good. Ofsted’s own data shows that eight out of 10 schools are now judged good or better. It is disingenuous to present England’s schools as defined by low standards, a lack of aspiration and mediocrity.
In a rapidly transforming system, we need to stand together to build public confidence in our education system. This is what those high-performing jurisdictions like Singapore and Ontario did when they began their journeys from good to great.
The language of warfare
When did the language of fighting and warfare become an acceptable way of talking about our education system? Classrooms are not sites of struggle. Our relationships with children and young people are not determined by combat. This is not Normandy 1944. As educationalists and leaders, we are not fighting for our country against families who are enemies of the state.
ASCL’s blueprint for a self-improving system states that we want a system in which all children and young people achieve. We can have a great education system that delivers quality and equality for all students. This will involve an act of imagination, courage and collective action - not an act of war.
School leaders do need to be exceptionally resilient and determined. We do need a broad consensus among professionals about high standards – getting there can be tough and, once achieved, it does require constant guardianship to prevent erosion or slippage. However, we should not be creating the impression of constant conflict.
I realise this is tough talking. So, no Sir Michael, we are not prepared to put up with mediocrity. Nor are we prepared to accept allegations about the state of secondary school leadership in England without a fight.
We will assert the right to lead confidently as transformative leaders, in the proper sense of this word.
Leora Cruddas is director of policy at the Association of School and College Leaders