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School leadership, why should it be different to system leadership?

Having been a school leader for many years now, I have developed my practice and understanding of what really works in school leadership. I have engaged in lots of leadership professional development opportunities, have read plenty of research, have engaged in dialogue with colleagues and have developed a host of tacit skills and understandings that all helped shape my practice. In short, I think I have got a pretty good handle on what works in effective school leadership. 

My main role, as I see it, is to create the conditions and culture that allows each and everyone of the teachers in the schools I lead to thrive and develop their own understandings and practice, in order to produce better outcomes for each and every one of our learners. To achieve this, school leaders need to create a culture and ethos built on trust and driven by values. They have to support all staff to innovate, and for them to know that they will be there, still in a supportive role, when staff make mistakes to help them move on again. They understand the importance of relationships to organisational development in schools, and are highly emotionally intelligent and aware. They need to embrace the concept of career long professional development and see this as part of a continuous  process for all, including themselves. They also understand how important it is to be active participants in the continuous professional development process that underpins all the development work of their schools. They are the leaders of learning in their schools. They recognise how the innovation that they seek to promote has to be based on firm foundations of research and evidence about what works, but also understand the crucial importance of context, and how practice from elsewhere should not just be simply lifted and copied. They understand how such successful practice still needs to be shaped for the schools they lead and the individuals in it. Every school and every individual in it, is in a different place, and on a different journey, to every other school or individual. However, they also understand how to use successful principles from other settings and how to apply these in a different context. They critically engage with data, and understand how data not only helps determine next steps in the development  journey, but how successful they are being in improving outcomes for learners. They are informed by data, but not driven by it. They understand how such data is a tool that they need to employ, but also understand its flaws. As Andy Hargreaves said this last week 'Data cannot tell you what you need to do.' They are able to utilise data to identify what actions are needed to improve what they do. They keep the main thing the main thing, and for them the main thing is always learning and teaching. They understand their role as system leaders and their responsibility for learners outside of their immediate locus of work. They work to better the system of education and support colleagues at local, district and national levels to help develop the self-improving system. 

My question in this post, is if the above characteristics of successful school leadership have been shown to work by researchers all over the world, and in many different systems, why then do so many outside of schools try to manage or 'lead' schools using almost the complete opposites of these principles? Do you feel at the moment that there is a culture and ethos within the system that supports all in schools, including their leaders, to give of their best and to thrive? There is challenge and accountability in schools but this is not the main driver for getting the best out of people, so why does it often feel that these are the main drivers from those outside of school? Do we feel trusted in schools and as a profession? Pasi Sahlberg often speaks of the high level of trust in the teaching profession found in Finland. Sometimes it feels like we can only dream of achieving such a consensus in our own societies, where we are distrusted by politicians and much of the media. It is interesting to note that in a recent poll about who you trust most to tell the truth in society, doctors and teachers came at the top and the media and politicians were near the bottom. Mind you, this was a poll of the public, and what do they know? I am not sure that many who try to remotely manage schools would score very highly on emotional intelligence and awareness either. I am not convinced they understand, or think about, the impact of many of their decisions on the individuals who lead and work in schools, and I am sure many lack empathy for individuals and their personal circumstances. They are concerned with strategies, systems and structures and by doing so can quickly lose sight of people and learners. Is innovation encouraged by national and local policy makers? They might say it is, but will quickly pounce on those who make mistakes as a result of trying something different, or those who don't fit a particular model. In such a culture, people are more inclined to play safe and keep their heads down. I would like to think that national policy is informed by research, but there is an increasing amount of evidence to suggest that there is a lot of cherry-picking going on to support particular ideology or individual agendas. A lot of people accrue a lot of air-miles visiting countries that appear to be doing well, as indicated by PISA or through self-promotion, look at what's going on, what resources are being used, then return to their own systems and promote the same practice whilst taking no account of cultural and historical contexts and influences. Such practices are then imposed on schools and systems through policy, statute and inspection, with no notice taken of particular contexts. People outside of schools seem in love with data. What is it they say about statistics? Too much policy and strategy is driven by data which has not been critically interrogated or even validated for the purpose for which it is being used. Then they want schools to produce more spurious data so that they can be ranked, or put into league tables so everyone would know which ones were the best and which are the worst performing. No matter, that the data used might be questionable, objections and concerns are dismissed as moaning from 'the blob.' The data doesn't lie, we have graphs, spreadsheets, percentages, percentiles, numbers, levels, and all the rest to prove what we are saying! All data, it would seem, is valid and some only value that which can be measured. Do any of them ask, what is the impact of such decisions for all learners? Often it feels that this is an after-thought, if a thought at all. No piece of data will close any gap that exists in education, people will. I would be wary of any data that shows year on year improvements, or year on year closing of a gap. This is more likely to people feeling forced to play the game and game the system, because of the high stakes involved.

I would like to argue that the type of leadership that has been shown to work within schools, should also be applied more vigorously by those with oversight of schools. Systems, structures, strategies are important, but it is people that have to deliver in classrooms every day that really make a difference. The systems, structures and strategies from outside can support in this process or they can hinder what we should all be trying to achieve. That is, the very best, holistic, learning experiences for all our learners, that will equip them to be happy successful individuals who can contribute to our cultural, economic and social development and the sustainability of the planet.


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