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ICSEI2015 and Leadership

In this post I want to consider some of the messages that were given about Leadership at the recent International Congress for School  Effectiveness and Improvement, held in Cincinnati. I was there as a representative of the Fellowship programme being provided by the Scottish College for Educational Leaderships. SCEL was set up following recommendations in 'Teaching Scotland's Future' written by Graham Donaldson. In this Donaldson made fifty recommendations concerning initial teacher education, professional development and leadership development. All of these were accepted in some form by the Scottish Government, and a National Implementation Board was set up to take these forward. It was number fifty that recommended the setting up of a leadership college. Recommendations forty eight and forty nine looked at professional development opportunities for experienced headteachers, and how they could be engaged at a system, and national level, to utilise their experience and continue their own development. This provided the background for my engagement with SCEL and why I was in Cincinnati. Whilst not there specifically to consider just leadership issues, this was obviously still an important area of interest for myself. So, here is an overview of what I heard in relation to school leadership.

First of all, it is worth noting that every keynote speaker, and many of the breakout workshop sessions, included messages about leadership and its importance to school improvement.

Andreas Schleicher had some important messages for school leaders in his keynote presentation. He identified a number of challenges faced by such leaders trying to deliver an education suitable for twenty first century learners. One was the need to develop a multi-dimensional framework for quality assurance and school improvement. Leadership needed to promote high expectations for all students and to develop connections across schools and beyond schools. He accepted that there were no easy answers to the challenges faced by school leaders. However, he saw them as key to providing the necessary professional challenge within their schools. It was also important that school leaders create 'the space teachers need to design the learning experiences.' They also needed to see their role as greater than just working within their own schools. They need to work collaboratively with other schools and leaders, and at a system level. A lot of this echoes much of what Donaldson included in his report for the Scottish Government.

Dennis Shirley in his response to Schleicher, commented that systems, which of course include leaders, can help and support teacher development, or they can inhibit or stop it. We need to get this right.

After this I attended a breakout session that was looking at leadership characteristics across a number of different countries, including Russia, USA and Latin America. The first presentation concerned Professional Learning Communities, both as a model for leadership development, and at how leaders impact on these positively and negatively. It was found that leadership was the constant that was driving the culture of PLCs, and that this was significant and meaningful. Whilst it was recognised that leadership was important, context was also very important and there was a wide divergence in effectiveness across countries.
In Russia work is ongoing to particularly look at school principals and their performance in instructional leadership. What has been found so far that principals have  good confidence in themselves as instructional leaders, but this does not particularly marry up with their understanding of what instructional leadership entails. As they became more knowledgeable, with deeper understanding, their confidence dropped. But it was acknowledged that this needed to happen before they could move on.
We also heard about another study happening in USA which is seeking to identify key characteristics of highly effective school leaders. This, like the others, is still an active research project and the researchers are not in a position to share major findings and conclusions yet. As there has been so little research carried out into effective school leadership, these studies, and others, are to be welcomed. What they all recognised was that the impact of the leader was crucial and significant to school development. I await the rest of their findings with great interest, and perhaps we will get some of this in Glasgow next year.

Tom Good looked back at his career in education and research during his keynote. Mostly he focused on what we now know about effective teaching practice and the impact of teachers on learning, but there were clear messages for school leaders in his conclusions. Amongst the characteristics he identified for effective teaching was that teachers need appropriate expectations for all learners and that they need enough time to create meaningful curricular experiences for learners. They need to manage their time and prioritise, and needed opportunities and support to learn and develop. They need to develop a coherent curriculum and be enthusiastic about what they do. It would seem that effective school leaders should display the same characteristics and have the same opportunities. They are also key in enabling their teachers to have the same experiences, through the culture and ethos of their schools. Good also identified some of his regrets about things that had not happened during his career. One of these was around the preparation of school principals, which he felt we had still not got right. He was also concerned about how research had been used and how school leaders, and others, had been too quick to use research uncritically. He felt some were too quick to use bad research and to resort to 'faddism' and the 'search for magic bullets' in school development. For the future, he would like to see more support given to teachers, 'appropriate expectations' of what teachers can achieve and for research to be use appropriately to inform practice. Who but school leaders, and policy makers, can create the conditions for these changes to happen?

My next breakout was a presentation on the development and implementation of the new professional standards and framework for teachers in Australia. This was extremely interesting and has helped inform the development of new professional standards in Scotland. We heard how the evaluation of the standards has been built into them as part of the process of engagement. Professor Janet Clinton and her colleagues went through this in great detail and openness. The key driver for the development was to improve teacher quality and had been informed by the work of John Hattie and others. They were very much seeking a collaborative approach to the implementation and its evaluation. They wanted to promote collegiately, consistency, professional development, transparency, professional ownership and student achievement for all levels within the profession. They recognised that successful implementation needed to address mind-sets around the use of the standards and the development of of the capacity of principals and senior leaders to take the standards into the classroom. For them to work and to have the greatest impact for all learners would require a shift in learning-cultures and that it would be principals and school leaders who would be key players in this.

In our next keynote, Vivian Tseng focused on how we can scale up developments and improvements from a few schools to dozens, and from a substantial number of schools to hundreds and thousands. Key aspects she identified were partnership working, the use of research, the use of models, managing relationships, building capacity in organisations, influencing decision making, as well as others. She completed her presentation with a plea that we would succeed or fail on the basis of how we built 'trusted relationships.' All of her recommendations present challenges and questions for school leaders to consider and find answers. 

The next breakout I attended focused on distributed leadership practices in elementary schools in USA. The researchers identified, in schools where distributed leadership was effective, leadership tasks were distributed and routines shared. There were formally structured opportunities for collaboration to take place. Data was used to inform decisions and evidence-based practice was supported. There was a focus on learning and 'building nested learning communities' within schools. They had the acquiring and allocating of resources, and the development of effective learning environments as key focuses. The best leaders were effective in buffering and protecting the teaching environment. They created clear expectations for behaviour of students and ensured that there was a clean and safe learning environment. They concluded that, where distributed leadership was most effective, the leaders scored high in terms of transformational-leadership practices.

When Daniel Duke looked at turning around low performing schools in his keynote, he pointed out that success started with leadership. 'In the absence of a capable leader, teachers are unlikely to initiate school turnaround on their own.' He said he had only identified one school in the USA where this had happened. 'Turnaround leaders' understand that change can be feared and they understood that people will be resistant to change. The best leaders have a step-by-step plan, inspire trust and don't tolerate incompetence. He recognised that headteachers and teachers may have different views on what's important, therefore they need to reach a consensus. Leaders needed to encourage teachers to 'abandon ineffective routines'. They need to develop teachers' capacity to provide individual interventions and maintain a focus on the lower performing pupils, in Duke's view. He acknowledged that 'all principals exist in a world of trade-off.' They need to make judgements, but they should be clear on what basis they are making these. He felt that organisational diagnosis and planning, as well as the taking of 'quick wins' were key to success as leaders tried to turnaround low-performing schools.

Every speaker I heard, and every workshop I attended, mentioned and identified the importance of leadership in school development. They also recognised the complexity of the leadership role in schools of any size. Anyone who has been in a leadership role for any length of time would, I am sure, agree with such sentiments. Leading a school is challenging and demanding intellectually, emotionally and physically. There are all sorts of different leadership styles that work in schools. Get it right and we can make a difference in so many lives. Get it wrong and we are letting our learners, our teachers and our community down, at the very least. It's a difficult job, but we can all get better at it, wherever we are in our career and in terms of experience. To do this,  we need to recognise the need to get better and to collaborate and engage with others to do this. There was lots in this conference that was affirmative to me as a school leader, and there was equally lots for me to consider further and use to reflect on my own practice. Hopefully, there is some information to help you with your own reflections. 


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