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