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Overnight Success?

Had a week of highs this week. The week started off in school on Monday working with staff and pupils of both schools I lead. Then on Tuesday I was off to the new Scottish for Educational Leadership (SCEL) headquarters in Glasgow for latest network meeting with colleagues on the SCEL Fellowship programme. We started with a meeting and discussion with Clive Dimmock from The Robert Owen Centre of Glasgow University. Clive spoke to us about his take on whether high performing leaders are born with the necessary dispositions required for such leadership, or if they could be trained into these dispositions. An interesting discussion then ensued in which we acknowledged the complexity of school leadership and the demands placed upon headteachers every day. We also recognised those tacit skills and attitudes that school leaders develop over time, and with experience, that contribute to high level leadership practices. My own thought is that many of the skills required for good or very good leadership can be taught and can be learned, but that to be a truly high level leader there are also other skills and dispositions that are perhaps more character traits and are therefore harder to develop, like empathy, real emotional intelligence and resilience.

After a short break, we were then joined by Professor Alma Harris and her colleague Michelle Jones. They were with us ahead of Alma's appearance on Wednesday at the Scottish Learning Festival, also in Glasgow. Having access to such high level thinkers and practitioners is one of the great benefits of the SCEL Fellowship programme and again we were not disappointed by our visitors. Alma and Michelle told us about their work with students in Malaysia, they had brought 32 Masters students with them and they were exploring Stirling castle as we met. Alma told us of her Seven Systems Study currently being undertaken and which was looking at school leadership across seven different countries and systems, some high performing, some middle performers and others which were near the bottom of educational performance tables, such as Pisa. What they were particularly interested in was discovering if the characteristics and dispositions found in leaders in high performing countries were also found in leaders at the other end of the scale, and what this might mean for leadership development and practice. I, and I am sure others, await the results of this study with keen anticipation. Michelle also told us about her work as a Primary School Headteacher in South Wales and how she had worked with staff pupils and community to turn around a school that had been judged as 'failing' and at grave risk of being closed. It was fascinating to listen to both of them then to speak about our own work and what we were trying to do individually, and SCEL was trying to do as an organisation. We then had a long and very interesting discussion around schools, leadership and development. Many of the themes we covered were to be echoed the next day during Alma's Keynote address at the SLF.

After retiring to our hotel, or home for some colleagues who lived locally, we then met again for a meal in the evening with Alma and Michelle. We were also joined by the new chief executive of SCEL, Gillian Hamilton, as well as the Chair of the Board Tony Finn. We had a super meal but, more importantly, we also had the opportunity to discuss further all the issues of the day with our guests and each other. I really can't underestimate the value of opportunities like this in helping everyone to explore issues and develop our thinking. Often it is after conversations and collaborations like this that you experience those light bulb moments and understandings that help move your own position and practice forward. I certainly learnt much from this evening, despite the wine!

The next day I attended the Learning Festival which really kicked off with the presentation by Michael Russell the Minister for Education in the Scottish Government. I have heard Michael speak on many occasions and I am always impressed by what he has to say. He is a skilled politician, but one who gets teachers, schools and what we are trying to do. He wants to support us and our direction of travel in Scottish education and is a great advocate and supporter of Curriculum for Excellence. He pointed out the successes of our journey over the last ten years as well as acknowledging some of the difficulties and challenges we have faced, and still face. But his message was positive and recognised the hard work of all in trying to make it work, whilst remaining true to the initial principles and vision of its architects. The one thing I noted in particular was the number of times he used the word 'collaboration' and how important he saw this at all levels within the system. He used the word over twenty times in his speech I estimated. He also spoke of equity and the most disadvantaged in our society and schools and how we all needed to work to bridge the gaps experienced by these groups of young people and the more fortunate. He saw teachers and schools as key and I particularly liked his message to teachers that professional learning was a right, but also a professional responsibility.

Next up for me was the day's highlight, the keynote by Alma. In this she dismantled the obsession with PISA and how this was skewing the direction of travel in so many systems, but not Scotland's and she praised the Minister for this. She warned that, whilst data was important in educational change and development, it was also wrong if it became the main driver for these. This she felt was what was happening with some countries and their fixation on their PISA standings. She recognised such information has value but only as part of the holistic picture and to help inform. The danger lay in when it becomes the only measure used of a system's effectiveness. She illustrated her argument with various stories from so called 'high attaining' countries which demonstrated how everything was not golden in these, and how we were often not even coating like with like. Context was crucial and it was naive to think you could lift what appeared to be happening in high performing countries, then drop it into others and expect the same results. She also spoke of how her work had shown that their were no quick-fixes and that schools and systems could not be changed or improved overnight. She pointed out that meaningful and sustainable change takes time, and that this was one of the reasons she was particularly impressed by the Scottish approach. This was music to my, and other ears, as I have been saying much the same about school development over the last five or six years. She also supported the view that schools and systems had to be really sure where they were before they could begin any meaningful journey of sustainable development.

If you are interested in hearing more of her presentation, I suggest you look out for the recording of it as it should be appearing on the Education Scotland website soon.

In the afternoon, I was part of a group of Fellowship colleagues who presented on our engagement with SCEL and our investigations we were undertaking as part of the programme. Mine is around the use of practitioner enquiry for individual, school and leadership development. I shall be writing up a full report on this, as will all my colleagues, and these should be appearing on the SCEL website fairly early in the new year. My early findings echo  much of those of Alma and others. We know enquiry approaches work. We know they are complex and messy at times. We know that they take time to embed and ensure sustainability. We know that they need to begin from where schools and individuals are. We know that school leaders need to be engaged in the process. We know they need a supportive culture based on trust. We know that everyone in the system needs to really understand what such approaches entail. We know we need to be aware of them becoming something else. We know that when they are truly effective and transformative they become a disposition for practitioners. Finally, we know we have to reframe our approach to career long professional development if we are to truly embrace such approaches.

I returned to my schools on Thursday and Friday to find everything progressing as it was on Monday. The pupils were working hard and producing  lots of fantastic work, thinking and new learning. Teachers were working just as hard at examining their own practice to identify how they could be even better at what they do. Parents were involved and helping extend the opportunities for learning for various classes as everyone continued on our continuous journey of growth and development. Were are where we are as a result of years of hard work and thinking about what we do. This is no overnight success, and we will probably look back in a few years and feel it wasn't a success at all. It was just another point on that journey.

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