A Mission


Over the last 6 weeks I’ve been doing two jobs – the Head of Education and Director of Education and Children’s Services.  We appointed my successor this week in the form of Maureen Jobson, who is the Manager of our Learning and Teaching Team. Maureen is everything I’m not – methodical, practical and reliable. She uses her experience of having been the Head Teacher of three schools to great effect and is highly regarded by all her colleagues.

Effective teams so often depend upon a mix of complimentary skills and Maureen’s skill set will definitely keep me on track and stop some of my more extreme flights of fancy with her no nonsense Sunderland rebuff.

With her appointment I’ve been able to give more thought to what I really want to achieve as Director. It’s possible to let such a big job overwhelm your sense of purpose and for it to become a management post where you simply try to keep the “oil tanker” afloat and on course. Yet as I’ve been giving this more thought the words from our Learning and Teaching policy keep bouncing back into my mind.  Unconditional Positive Regard can sound like any other jargonsitic phrase yet I believe that it should underpin everything we do with young people.

I’ve explored the definition of the term before on this log but it might be worth going over it again and giving it my own twist. Unconditional Positive Regard means that you don’t give up on kids – whatever they do. In many ways it helps to reflect upon the concept from a parental perspective.  If one of my sons did something wrong I would challenge their behaviour, chastise them, and try to help them understand why it was wrong and what the better alternative might have been. But just because they did something wrong did not mean that I was going to treat them any differently from my other son – my love was unconditional.

It took me some time as a teacher to come to terms with this approach – I remember belting kids (corporal punishment) when I first became a teacher, of getting really angry and just wanting kids who misbehaved to be removed from my class. I can’t exactly remember when my attitude changed but I do know that when I shifted from a “conditional” approach to an “unconditional” approach that the response I got from children was incredibly different and the impact that I had a teacher was transformed.

In the last three years I’ve been trying to promote the concept of unconditional positive regard within our Learning and Teaching Policy and it has had some limited impact.  The majority of those involved in education adopt it as their natural approach and you can spot them straight away. Yet for others this idea is something of an anathema – “I’m not paid to like children” was perhaps one the more memorable rejoinders, or the classic “I’m not a bloody social worker”. In other words some people in education feel that they are only there to work with those who want to be there – the rest should be removed from their presence. Well unfortunately there are lots of kids who don’t want to be there. Kids who have to put themselves to bed, who have to witness things at home which they shouldn’t have to witness, kids for whom the very act of getting to school is an achievement.

It is to my great shame that I can recall a science teacher I managed who regularly called a child in his class a “moron”. He felt he was justified in using this word as it accurately described the child’s behaviour – he certainly saw no need to apologise. Yet this same child could go into the class down the corridor and be one of the most enthusiastic and motivated kids in the class. So what did I do about it? Nothing! Absolutely nothing! I rationalised this at the time by saying to myself that it would just make the kid’s life even harder – and it came to the point where we removed the child from the class for his own protection as he would aggressively respond to the demeaning way he would be treated by the teacher to the point where he would be excluded or punished.

So what does all this mean for my new job? Well I think it means that I’m not going to walk away from this any more. I’m going to make it explicit that it will be my expectation that the behaviour of every person employed within Education and Children’s Services can be characterised by a commitment to unconditional positive regard.  I don’t intend to issue blanket edicts or constant memos but I do intend to tackle individuals, regardless of position, who come to my attention as having not treated a child in a manner which is underpinned by unconditional positive regard.

I might be wrong but I think this simple message repeated, and consistently and insistently upheld has the potential to have an exceptionally powerful impact upon the lives of children, families and the culture of Education and Children’s Services in East Lothian.

“And what if people don’t treat kids with unconditional positive regard?”

Then they are in the wrong job!

“The Vision Thing”

It was George H.W. Bush (the father of George W. Bush) who in 1987 responded to the suggestion that he turn his attention from short-term campaign objectives and look to the longer term by saying, “Oh, the vision thing”. I wonder sometimes if many of us in Scottish education suffer from Bush’s same discomfort with the “vision thing”?

At risk of stereotyping the Scottish psyche we are often more comfortable when faced with practical problems, which require “fixing”. Over the last twenty years this “fixing” mentality has been at the core of school development planning, i.e. identify what’s not working; work out a solution; implement solution; check if it’s fixed the problem. What happened in such an environment was that we ended up with lots of discrete tasks that “fixed” individual things but did not necessarily combine to move the system forwards.

Yet such an approach has much to commend it:

  1. Change can be represented as a technical enterprise, which can be controlled and managed.
  2. It gives the impression of productive activity (a prerequisite for the Scottish educator); and
  3.  It often results in a concrete product, which can be admired and shared – often to the credit of the person responsible for the action.

Perhaps our proud engineering and scientific heritage has positively reinforced our belief that the solution to a problem can be found through reliance upon technical mastery and hard work? The technical model has much to commend it for many discrete tasks that suit a linear, logical and controlled environment. Such an approach is sometimes referred to a “waterfall model” of development that maintains that one should move to a phase only when its preceding phase is completed and perfected. Phases of development in the waterfall model are discrete, and there is no jumping back and forth or overlap between them. In many ways educational change strategies in Scotland have depended upon this “waterfall” approach  which have been bureaucratic, slow and inflexible.

Yet there exists an alternative strategy that exists in practice in many Scottish educational contexts which promotes a more flexible, creative and effective approach to change, which can be used in conjunction with the waterfall model. As the waterfall approach takes its example from the scientific world, so the alternative takes its example from the artistic world. The model I have in mind is that of the sculptor. A sculptor will often start with a vision in mind about the final outcome. But as they commence their work and interact with the media with which they are working they begin to modify and change the original vision they had in mind.

This form of thinking is sometimes known as an “iterative” process where progress towards the eventual vision takes place over a series of versions where the creator reflects upon the original purpose but takes account of the shifting perception of what is actually required – which might be quite different from what was originally envisaged. This contrasts significantly from the dominant approach in education we often remain locked into “plan-driven” model where no allowance can be made for any change in the environment, or the needs that originally informed the need for change.

So where does the “vision thing” sit between two such contrasting approaches to change? As I suggested earlier many educational leaders are more comfortable when focusing upon technical problems that lend themselves to a linear and sequential problem solving approach. The very complexity of education sometimes means that it can only be conceptualised by breaking it down into manageable chunks – each of which can be managed, considered and improved in isolation, in the belief that they can then reconstituted into a “better” whole.

In many ways I agree that many of the elements of education can be considered and effectively changed in such an isolated manner. However, I would argue that the overview, or gestalt perspective, should be seen through the eyes of the sculptor as opposed to the eyes of the technician. For the educational leader must have a vision of what it is they are seeking to create in partnership with their colleagues. That vision should be clear but it should not be so “locked in” that it shuts out the emerging reality of the situation. It has been my privilege to work with a number of educational leaders who have adopted such a creative perspective – the results have to be seen to be believed!

Lifting the barrier

During our weekend in Paris we sat at a corner cafe and watched the Paris police close off the streets to allow a protest march to take place.

There was no warning just a policeman who walked into the middle of the street and stopped all traffic from entering the area.  Chaos ensued as cars and buses had to try to change their route.  The police eventually stretched a ribbon across the street to reinforce the closure.  As we watched transfixed the policeman was constantly challenged by drivers who claimed they had to get through – probably because they were residents. The policeman started to let some through and others he refused – whilst many didn’t bother to ask. The situation was compounded by passing pedestrians who took it upon themselves to lift the ribbon to allow some drivers to get through whilst the policeman’s back was turned.

As ever my mind shifted into metaphor mode as it struck me that this is often how leaders can get things wrong.

  1. There was no explanation for the action being taken.
  2. No warning was given to allow people to change their route beforehand.
  3. The leader allowed some people to break the rules – but they were not invited to make that request – so it only benefitted some.
  4. The leader appeared to arbitrarily choose who could get through – this caused immense frustration for those who were not allowed.
  5. Observers – unaware of the reason for the rule (it might have been a bomb for all they knew) interfered and made their own decisons about how could get through.
  6. The leaders job became more and more difficult.

In leadership situations there often occasions when rules must be imposed for very good reasons – but the leaders fail to properly explain them; don’t explain any appeal process; have no consistency in application; and don’t publicise/explain the rules to those outwith the organisation.

I must try to remember this lesson!!!

Elements of Leadership

One of the best Headteachers I’ve ever encountered was Norman Roxburgh, Headteacher at Earlston High School for nearly 20 years.  Norman retained his enthusiasm, commitment and passion for learning and teaching throughout his career. I learned many things from Norman and so I was delighted to see his recent contribution to TESS.  There are many who write about leadership; research leadership, and talk about leadership – Norman lived it. He’s given me persmission to copy his article here.

Elements of Leadership

Before I retired from my post as Headteacher of Earlston High School at Easter of last year, I was asked to address Borders Headteachers on ” Leadership”. It was a subject to which I had given very little thought, but it was interesting for me to look back over my career and to recognise various aspects of leadership which I have seen. (Incidentally, I strongly agree with the idea that all teachers are leaders.)

After completing a degree in Engineering, I spent a year with VSO, teaching Physics. Despite having no training and no experience, I was invited to join the Management Team, because I was a “graduate from Scotland “.  I think this is an example of leadership by “status”. There are many examples where we are expected to follow someone simply because of their status.

After doing an MSc, I was not sure what to do next. There were plenty of opportunities for a graduate in microelectronics in the 70’s, but I wanted something different. A friend dared me to apply to a company, which provided electronic services on oilrigs, because it was the highest paid job in the “Directory of Graduate Opportunities”. During training in Paris a senior manager addressed the trainees. He explained the company owned us and that we would be told when to eat, when to sleep, and when we could make love; (only he was not so polite). This is leadership by “ownership” and I am sure this element of leadership is much used in the world today.

After completing teacher training I was very fortunate to be accepted on a British Council scheme to teach in Malaysia. This was a great experience in a wonderful country. The school was a prestigious government boarding school for gifted boys from local villages. The boys were very able and very hardworking. Despite having to study in a new language, most were very successful in ‘A’ Level exams. The headteacher could decide which teachers should be transferred out of the school. I recall one occasion when a teacher was rather reluctant to volunteer for an extra duty, but the suggestion that he might like to work in a very distant village resulted in great enthusiasm for the project. I think this is leadership by  “Power” and although headteachers in this country do not exercise this level of power, they can decide who teaches which class next year. That can be great power.

I was fortunate to be seconded to manage the TVEI extension project for Scottish Borders. The project was very well funded and, if schools met certain criteria, they received extra staffing and extra funding. At first some schools were reluctant to meet the criteria, but when asked if they wanted the extra funding all became willing. This element is leadership by “Money”, and it is very effective. Projects with no funding have a serious disadvantage.

 I think another important element in leading staff is by “Fear”. An example would be fear of inspectors. I am concerned when I hear of a headteacher telling teachers to do something because of what inspectors will say; rather than because it is the best thing for the pupils. This fear is very understandable. I think the HMI has to work hard to persuade teachers that their first priority is to give an excellent service to their pupils, and if they do, so they have nothing to fear.

Not surprisingly, I have left what I believe is the most important element of leadership till last. It is leadership by “Respect”. It is true that respect has to be earned and it is earned by doing things well. If a leader does her own job well; if she helps other staff when they need help; if she deals well with the most difficult problems; if she communicates well and if she acknowledges the work of others, then she will earn respect and people will listen to her when she wants their support. Likewise, the teacher who works hard and does things well for his pupils will usually earn the respect of his  pupils.

An example of outstanding leadership is when a teacher runs a sports squad, or puts on a musical show and gets sophisticated teenagers to give up their time to train in the mud or attend Sunday rehearsals. They are the natural leaders of young people. They are not common, but they are very valuable and much respected.

One might argue that the elements I have identified have overlap with each other and that things are not so simple. No doubt there are other elements and no doubt the good leader has to employ a variety of elements. However, I am certain that my conclusion is true and if it is obvious to you, then I am very pleased. You are probably well respected as a good leader.

Norman Roxburgh.

Absorbing people’s pain: A Leader’s Role

Norman Drummond led a wonderful session this morning at our Headteachers’ Conference.  Today’s theme was “Developing a Coaching Culture in East Lothian”. Norman is an exceptional presenter and his focus on co-coaching seemed to resonate with many of my colleagues.

Norman has an uncanny knack of helping people to unlock their own hopes and ambitions, and getting them to reflect upon their experiences.

In the course of a conversation with Norman I quoted one of the greatest pieces of advice I’ve ever received. I was a Depute Headteacher at Selkirk High School and I had been sitting in my office one afternoon feeling a bit sorry for myself having seemed to have dealt with four or five members of staff in the course of the day – each of whom had a complaint or a concern. I was talking about this with a colleague, Robin Ross, who had been a Church of Scotland minister in Jerusalem for many years before returning to Scotland and starting a teaching  career.  I think I said something along the lines that I felt a bit like a punch bag with people unloading their problems on me.  Rather than feeling sorry for me Robin told me that throughout theological history it has been the role of the leader to bare his/her back and absorb the pain of others.  I’d never considered this before – but it did seem so powerful. From that time on – although I’m sure some of the people who have worked for me will probably disagree – I’ve tried to be aware of the need to absorb people’s pain, particularly in times of stress.  Sometimes it’s too easy for the leader to simply rebound or even amplify people’s concerns.

It’s not something I’ve ever come across in any leadership book or manual but that piece of advice has had a transformational impact upon me throughout my career.

Last small observation – Robin Ross was a teacher, I was  Depute HT, yet he acted as a mentor/coach for me (his line manager).  So often we expect coaching/mentoring relationships to be characterised by a “downward” direction of travel.  I believe we need to actively challenge that notion as some of the best coaching advice I’ve received has come from people I managed.

That Was The Week That Was


No posts for over a week but life has been something of a blur.

I’m probably earning my corn at the moment with some major challenges facing us in relation to efficiency savings having to be made in the education budget.  Every meeting and piece of correspondence seems to be connected to this issue and I’ve got 100 letters on my desk from concerned parents of a primary school.  One of the things which helps me to remain focused on the needs of children are my visits to schools and I was glad I made time to get out to Prestonpans Primary School.

I’m  very lucky to be working with such professional people, in the form of staff in the centre and headteachers out in the schools. One of the things we have benefited from in the last 18 months has been our attempt to move to a totally transparent system in relation to budgets.  People now understand how much we have in our budget, where it goes and how it’s all connected.  In systems which are less transparent it’s possible for people to think that there are secret pots held within the centre which can be used at my discretion.  Through our Finance Advisory and Scrutiny Group we have established the fact that the budget is a single pot, or as I sometimes say “the pot is the pot” i.e. if someone in the system is to get more money then someone else has to get less – the pot does not expand.

In addition to budget issues I was out at three evening meetings with parents in the last week.  Tuesday was our first cluster meeting with Parents’ Council Reps from the Tranent area – the other areas will be covered in the next five weeks.  These meetings prove exceptionally useful and although a lot of the time was spent on budget matters we did get the chance to explore the idea of parents as customers – hopefully this is a theme which we can explore in the other meetings.

On Wednesday I was at a public meeting in Dunbar to share information about the new primary school provision.  The meeting was very positive and I think the parents and the community appreciated seeing some of the details we have been working on.  Having worked very hard to develop our communication strategy in relation to this matter it was good to see it starting to bear fruit.

On Thursday I went to speak to the Haddington Infant School Parents’ Council to brief them on the long leet interviews for the vacant headteacher post. We now involve a parent on the long leet panel as part of our response to the Parental Involvement Act and I think it’s made a really positive difference. We have chosen three excellent candidates to progress through to the short leet process.

Lastly, I have decided to apply for the Acting Director of Education and Children’s Services post. I was delighted for Alan Blackie, my boss, colleague and mentor when he was recently appointed as Chief Executive of East Lothian Council, although he will be a great loss to all of us involved in education and children’s services he will really make an impact on all services in East Lothian..  The job will be for two months in the first instance, as the administration want consider the possibility of new structures.  If I was fortunate enough to be appointed it would give me a chance to see if I enjoyed that broader role and also allow the administration to see if I could actually do the job.  Given that I acted up in my present post for the first year I’m not uncomfortable with that possibility.

Efficiency savings

The concordat agreed by the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and the Scottish Government sets out how funding and outcome agreements will operate over the next three years.

The document is worth reading on a number of counts but it’s the section relating to efficiency savings that perhaps sets out the greatest challenge for education.

The text reads as follows: 

For the period 2008-09 to 2010-11, the level of efficiency savings which all parts of the public sector will be expected to meet has been set at 2 per cent per annum. Under the partnership offer, local authorities will be allowed to retain all of these, to re-deploy against ongoing pressures and address local priorities. This represents special treatment for local government. All other parts of the public sector will have an element of their efficiency savings deducted at source.

When combined with the impact of removing ring-fenced funding streams, retaining efficiency savings will give authorities significant scope to re-deploy their resources to meet many of the funding pressures they will face over the next three years.

So at least 6% savings over a three year period.  At first glance it looks a reasonable deal for education but the reality is that there is no guarantee that efficiency savings made in education will remain there, although they may be spent elsewhere within the authority depending upon need.

We had a meeting of our Finance Advisory and Scrutiny Group on Friday and the challenges facing education in East Lothian will no doubt be replicated in the rest of Scotland to a greater or lesser extent.

The key role for all leaders in education is to ensure that we maintain our focus upon improving our service at a time when our budgets may be reducing – easier to say than to do – but an obligation nevertheless.

Creating a positive dynamic


I visited Sanderson’s Wynd Primary School in Tranent this morning.

In the course of a very enjoyable visit where I observed a number of classes and talked with Headteacher Fiona Waddell and some of her staff about how they create a purposeful learning environment.  The school is not without its challenging pupils but what struck me was the collective impact the staff make and the cumulative effect it has upon children.

All too often in schools classroom behaviour is seen to be the responsibility of the individual teacher, and there is no doubt that individual teachers do set the tone and do have significant impact upon their own class’s behaviour. However, when we talk about the standard of behaviour in an entire school it’s a much more complex affair.

The reality is that an individual teacher can have little effect upon behaviour across a school, nor can a headteacher impose discipline if they have to do it all themselves.  However, where all the staff come together and realise the collective impact that they have upon children then the results can be quite exceptional.  It’s in circumstances such as these that the critical mass takes on a life of its own (see – tipping point)

In my recent posts about being user (customer) facing it might have been possible for people to think that I was suggesting that we roll over when confronted by kids who want their own way on all matters – especially where their behaviour is concerned. I actually think we do a great disservice when this happens as in my experience they need clear parameters and boundaries against which they can rub up against – but which provide clear and unabiguous guidance. Our commitment to treating learners with unconditional positive regard demands that we set such standards.

The problem occurs in schools when these expectations and behaviours are not consistently upheld by all teachers or the management of the school.  What I saw today was a very impressive collective effort which will create a very positive dynamic over the next few years (I should have said that the school has just been created through amalgamation with two other schools).

Last point – in times of challenge -such as these – it’s vital that we retain our sense of “fun”. The staff – despite the challenges they face are prepared and encouraged to relax and have fun with pupils and the wider school community at regular intervals. It’s this careful balance between high expectations and clear boundaries, and relaxation and fun which go towards making a positive, effective and rewarding  learning environment – for both children and adults.

Working together?


I’m just back from the Association of Directors of Education Scotland (ADES) annual conference which was held in Aviemore.

Fiona Hyslop, Cabinet Secretary with responsibility for Education and Lifelong Learning, was speaking and was stressing the importance of everyone involved in education working together, particularly in the new world of local outcome agreements.

As she was speaking I couldn’t help feeling that we in educational leadership positions in Scotland need to work a lot closer than we maybe have done in the past to ensure that we provide a united front to represent the needs of children.  Just last week the Headteachers Association Scotland, HAS,  (secondary sector) held their conference, and I’d been speaking at the Association of Headteachers and Deputes Scotland, AHDS,  (primary sector) just a few weeks ago.

All of our respective organisations have their place in Scottish education and HAS and AHDS do a great job representing the needs of their members as formal trade unions. However, it seems to me that there are such huge overlaps between our concerns, visions and backgrounds that we would have a huge amount to gain from working together in a more strategic manner – particulary in relation to some of the big issues facing Scottish education and children’s services. The direction of travel set out by Fiona Hyslop for the journey facing education over the next ten years suggests that we could collectively make a much greater impact if we looked for points of synergy and worked together to influence, transform and protect Scottish education. I’m not suggesting for one minute that any of the organisations forfeit their own identity -simply that we enhance our impact by forming a more strategic partnership on points of mutual interest.

Just a thought.

Abstract Thinking


Over the next few months I intend to attempt to write a paper on the Seven Sides of  Educational Leadership for possible publication in an academic journal.

The first part of the process is to come up with an abstract.  Does the following: a) make any sense; b) provide an expectation about what the paper might be about; and c) entice the reader to read the full paper.

Changing the Metaphor; Changes the Theory; Changes the Practice: Developing a Multiple Metaphor Model of Educational Leadership.
Existing models of educational leadership are dominated by approaches, which try to reduce the change process to a series of sequential steps, in the assumption that if done in the correct order they will result in success. Such thinking has led educational leaders into bureaucratic, technical and mechanistic leadership approaches.

The approach described here taps into educational leaders’ intuitive appreciation of the change process and develops a meaningful tool with which to analyse, plan and effect ‘real’ cultural change in the complex environment of education.

Throughout human history metaphors have been recognised as a way in which to help people understand and interact with phenomena which otherwise would be too abstract and too complex. The multiple metaphor model uses a kaleidoscope of seven inter-connecting metaphors which have emerged and been tested over a ten year period in a variety of education settings.

The model, referred to in this paper as the Seven Sides of Educational Leadership, enables the leader to effect substantial and sustainable change through a form of leadership that is more suited to the challenges facing education in the 21st century, than the technical model of leadership that so dominates current leadership practice around the world.