Leadership for learning: The challenges of leading in a time of change

The HMIe have recently published a fascinating report into educational leadership in Scottish education.

It starts out by asserting that 85% of educational leaders in all sectors are good or very good – which obviously leaves a question hanging about the remaining 15%.

I really like Graham Donaldson’s foreword where he says something very important about the type of culture to which we should be aspiring:

“Developing leadership is not just about honing the skills of those in the most senior positions, important though that undoubtedly is. It is also about releasing the energies of every member of staff and every learner and about giving each of them a sense that their contributions are valued.”

He also makes an important statement about responsibility and accountability:

“A desire to take responsibility and to accept accountability is part of good leadership. Ultimate accountability rests with the person at the head of the formal structure but all members of staff must be committed to and feel accountable for their own development and performance. Such commitment lies at the heart of professionalism.”

In his conclusion he reaffirms the notion of the culture to which we should be aspiring:

“…build a leadership culture in Scottish education which encourages initiative, tackles difficult problems directly and is genuinely aspirational.”

The report chimes with something I was recently writing about when it states:

“It adopts a cross-sectoral approach which asserts that the principles of effective leadership are common to all sectors although the challenges and methods of approach may well vary depending on context”.. pg 2

I wonder if this opens the door for primary and secondary leaders to operate in their counterparts’ context?

The Report sets out to:

Provoke discussion

Identify key issues in leadership and management

Identify and disseminate features of good practice

Encourage all those with a stake or interest in education to consider their contributions to leadership.

There’s a very useful summary section included in the introduction.

I think the document manages to summarise and exemplify many important leadershipattributes and actions. I particularly like the notion that there is no single leadership style is being promoted.

The report emphasises that the development of vision must be part of a collaborative process. However, I have worked in organisations where it’s quite obviously that the leader has no particular vision themselves and this can be debilitating when this happens.

The report quite clearly sets out the danger of over-simplification and of the downplaying of management and management practices and the over-used word and under-used reality of operating strategically is well defined:

“Strategic thinking is a demanding task that requires leaders to consider competing priorities and make the hard decisions about those issues that are absolutely central to future development. It requires the ability to look some way ahead and to understand the factors that will have an impact. An effective strategist is able to see the big picture: pg 48 -with some very useful examples being drawn from inspection reports.

I found a lot of the section on developing people and partnerships to be a bit shallow. It’s all very well to describe the importance of creating an “empowering” culture – quite another to translate it into reality. Reference is made to Peter Senge’s Fifth Discipline but I was surprised that it completely missed out the most important concept of systems thinking – i.e. seeing the inter-connections between all the various things we do as leaders – I feel this is a critical element to successful leadership practice.

I was also disappointed that the relationship between “challenge” and “support” was not fully explored. These are key phrases used by the HMIe and local authorities yet no definition was offered. I’m keen that we move on from the notion of challenge and support to validation and support – which would sit much more neatly with the focus on valid and reliable self-evaluation. There was also an important omission about the difficult conversations that leaders need to have to people who are quite obviously underperforming.

However, I liked the emphasis on high leverage activities such as:

  • regular opportunities to observe what is happening in ‘classrooms’ along with immediate, face-to-face feedback to staff;
  • rigorous analysis of data to highlight trends in performance, pinpoint areas of under performance and develop plans of action linked to priority areas;
  • simple and effective target-setting and tracking systems to monitor the performance of learners;
  • opportunities for staff to meet in teams and review and develop the quality of provision on offer; and
  • effective and targeted CPD linked to the process of professional review and focused on improvements in learning, teaching and achievement.

The report concludes with a very powerful section with some very useful advice about the type of Leadership CPD which proves worthwhile – and is worthy of repeating here:

  • Learning ‘on the job’ through shadowing and team teaching.
  • Coaching and mentoring experiences.
  • Teaming up with another member of staff or organisation or establishment to exchange practice and ideas (at times, by buying in supply cover to allow staff to undertake peer observations or visits).
  • Secondment opportunities.
  • Opportunities for team teaching/team presentations followed by review and agreement on action points.
  • 180° or 360° feedback to identify strengths, areas for development and aligned CPD opportunities.
  • Being involved in chairing a working group or project or committee.
  • Leading a development project.
  • Attendance at leadership seminars, master classes or conferences.
  • Attendance at agreed ‘core’ leadership and management courses in local CPD directories.
  • Professional review and development which is effectively tied into a leadership framework such as the Standard for Headship in schools.
  • Multi-agency professional development to share best practice and take forward the children’s services agenda.
  • Away days and retreats.

The accompanying Case Study exercises should prove very useful for schools and authorities although I’m not sure that they will result in significant change unless implemented within cultures which seek to nurture and support their staff. If leaders are instructed to complete the self-evaluations then it’s unlikely to have any real impact.

In conclusion I think this document will prove to be a very useful tool for schools and authorities to use in well considered and “strategic” manner

Compulsory Training in Mind, Brain and Education for teachers?

I find it ironic that the only training/continuous professional development (CPD) which is compulsory for educationalists in East Lothian relates to such things as Health and Safety; Recruitment and Selection; or Disciplinary and Grievance courses.

My experience at Harvard has made me question whether or not there might be a place for compulsory professional updates on new knowledge and practice emerging from research into the Mind, Brain and Education.

Picking up on Richard Elmore’s thoughts the profession is often at the mercy of the latest fad/methodology/approach which will have some theoretical context and background but which is all too often ignored in favour of getting down to what we might call the “tricks”.

Would it not be liberating for teachers to treat them as professionals – in much the same way as doctors – and give them the most recent knowledge relating to the brain, mind and education which they could then apply to their own practice?

In this way they can be reflecting upon their own and others practice in a much more meaningful way than merely implementing an “approach” which has been developed by others.

If we did go down this route I’d like to explore the possibility of establishing a team of staff members from throughout our authority who would pull together the materials, devise the teaching model, and deliver the courses.

In our Health and Safety course – which all senior managers must complete – there is a necessity to pass the final written assignment. Would such an approach have merit in relation to our professional practice ?- I think it would and I would be willing to be one of the first through the course.

Back Home and a pledge

I got back to Scotland on Friday.

So what did I take from the Harvard experience?

There are ten inter-related things I’d like to do as a consequence of attending the course:

  1. Identify and remove all things which erode or prevent a sense of belonging – in schools and the authority
  2. Reduce the variance in the quality of learning experience in every classroom
  3. Promote the notion of a “person” being separate from their “practice”
  4. Believe in every person’s capacity to learn – children and staff
  5. Listen carefully to what people say and avoid moving into problem solving mode too quickly
  6. Encourage, model and support people to say “These children are mine”
  7. Focus our attention upon improving the quality and complexity of “learning tasks” provided in every classroom
  8. Keep returning to the measureable impact of our work
  9. Ensure that all teachers have a comprehensive understanding about current research into the brain, mind and education which they can use to develop their own professional practice.
  10. Establish unambiguous, consistent and shared norms about what we expect from our children and ourselves – and ensure that these are vigorously upheld.

One of the girls!!!

 Longfellow Hall

For the next ten days I will only be posting to our Harvard Leadership Log

If the last 24 hours are anything to go by it’s going to be an interesting ten days.  So far I’ve been described as:

“one of the girls” and “The bodyguard”

I’m not sure which one I prefer?

“Aye Been” isn’t always “Aye Wrong”


I was recently asked to speak at the Braw Lads Gathering Big Breakfast. This meant getting up at 5.00am for a 6.am start. 350 people gathered in the Galashiels Volunteer Hall for an hour and half of song, speeches and general good fun.

I spoke about one of my favourite poems “The Borderland” which was first published 100 years ago this month.  The poem had been written by Roger Quinn who was known as the “Tramp Poet”.

After the event I had pint in the Salmon Inn with Jim Renwick, one of Scotland’s greatest ever rugby players.  Jim comes from Hawick so it was good to see him in Gala supporting a rival town’s festival.

Jim and I were talking about the merits of tradition and then of “Aye Been” – e.g “It’s aye been (always been)done that way so there’s no need to change now”  – which is often used a disparaging way of describing the Scottish Borders’ attitude to life.

I think one the biggest challenges facing educational leaders is to recognise the value of tradition whilst at the same time introducing worthwhile improvements.

Sometimes there is an implicit belief that just because something is new it must automatically be better – the wise leader sustains and builds traditions and weaves new ways of doing things into that cultural fabric.

That is not to say that we can never challenge tradition – there are times when the “aye been” has to change – it’s just that we must remember that this does not always have to the case.

Web site information


Over the summer we are working on improving the information we provide about East Lothian education on the council’s website.

We’ve set up a temporary holding point to help us gather some of that information together.

We’d welcome suggestions for what additional infromation you would like to be able to access about education in East Lothian.

Please note that some of the information held on this site is still in the process of development.

Integration of services – or – delivery of integrated services?

One of the responsibilities I have – in fact which I volunteered for – is to co-ordinate the East Lothian Integrated Children’s Services Plan.

Now that the schools are off I can turn my mind to this although we’ve been involved in preliminary work for the last couple of months. One of our goals is to try to reduce workload for people whilst enhancing the impact we have – more for less- is it possible?

At a really god meeting today we agreed that our goal is not the integration of services but the delivery of integrated services. Our emerging aim for Integrated Children’s Services reads:

To ensure that services for children and young people are delivered in a well-integrated, seamless manner, which result in positive outcomes for children and young people.

Our outline plan shows how we would like to link up our Community Plan, with our Integrated Children’s Services Plan by making use of themes which we will address through inter-agency teams and in our particular services. It’s this latter element which is different – by recognising that single services – such as education – will contribute to themes in some of their day-to day practice as opposed to always having to set up yet another inter-agency group.

Blogito ergo………..


In the last week I’ve twice been described in introductions to people as “Don blogs” – another one went “you’re the person who blogs”.

It’s as if by blogging someone can draw some conclusion about me from that fact – regardless of what I write about.

I did a quick search for blogito ergo sum – “I blog therefore I am” –  apologies to Descartes – but I’m not the first here (rarely have been)

Maybe you can tell something about someone who blogs? – but when I think about the range of people whose professional blogs I read there doesn’t seem any common stereotype which could be applied. 

So why the “you blog therefore you are…….” perhaps it’s just part of the process we need to go through until it becomes a more common activity, or perhaps it’s just another convenient/shorthand way to characterise people in this busy world we live in?

Or maybe by blogging you really are…………………………………….?