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Beware what you wish for :some thoughts on system leadership

Currently in Australia, during our summer break. I have found time and space to not only recharge my batteries for the new school year ahead, but also for some thinking on a number of issues concerning us in education. A few days ago I had the pleasure of meeting and chatting with @stringer_andrea whilst in Sydney, and that conversation set me thinking about system leadership a bit more. Andrea was telling me about two particular issues being experienced by Australian educators, and I think both are connected to system leadership.

The first was about attempts to try and control and 'manage' educators on Social media, like Twitter and blogging by national and state governments, as well as school leaders. It would seem a lot of this is pretty covert and takes the form of pressure and conversations with individual staff by school leaders, something I have experience of myself. This was also something @wappa53 and I touched on during an earlier conversation, before I went on my east coast road-trip. I have long lamented the fact that we still have education systems, schools and classrooms controlled by too many 'control freaks' who want to control and micromanage everything and everyone. However, there are pretty overt steps being taken in Australia to try and control teacher discourse on social media and through blogs. I have seen a number of tweets and blogs since I have been here from educators bemoaning the attempts through professional standards and policies to stifle 'free speech' and debate within the profession. Again, I am sure there are other educators elsewhere, operating in what are openly 'democratic' systems, who have been experiencing similar pressures, control and accountability measures that aim to stifle true debate. This is not to mention those operating in a lot less democratic or tolerant systems, who have a complete inability to get anywhere near a situation where 'free speech' is even tolerated. We need only look to recent events in Turkey to witness the conditions and pressures that many educators and academics work under day after day.

On my journey back to Perth following my meeting with Andrea, I managed to read 'The Moral Imperative of School Leadership' by Michael Fullan during our five hour air flight. Like many of Fullan's best work, this is not a long read but contains many important insights and issues for us to ponder. Fullan has spoken for many years about the importance of collaboration and system leadership if we are to really envisage and construct education systems and schools that truly work for the benefit of all, individuals and society. I, and many others, agree entirely with the primacy he gives to people working collaboratively within a school and a system to shape that school or system for the better. 'Top down' just doesn't work and we really need to grow schools and systems that are more organic and self-developing and sustaining. Helen Timperley has talked of 'adaptive expertise' within individuals and within systems as an ultimate aim for teachers, schools and systems. In the preface to this work, Fullan  notes that 'School leadership is a collective enterprise.' and responsibility. For many years now we have recognised that leadership which is effective, cannot and should not reside within one individual in any school or organisation. Andrea sent me a clip of David Marquet talking about how he distributed leadership as captain of a nuclear submarine, but which has important messages for us all. 

Collaboration is recognised by Fullan, and  many other researchers, as crucial in school and system development. It is also a necessary step on the journey to true system leadership in order to develop the truly self-developing and improving systems we need. Governments across the globe have recognised the importance of system leadership, and the promotion and development of such practices have been included in many development frameworks and policies. To me, collaboration involves more than face to face contact and work with colleagues. The world is a very different place now to the one of the late 1990s when people like Fullan, Hargeaves and others started talking about a new way of working in schools and systems. We didn't have social media and blogs like we do now, and these are providing many educators with the tools and platforms to develop 'collaboration' and system leadership in new and exciting ways. For system leadership and collaborative practices, social media and advances in technology have blown the old ways of collaboration out of the water. Now everyone can contribute to the discourse around education and the development of system leadership practices, and everyone should feel they have a 'voice' in this. No longer do you have to wait to be invited, or given permission by someone above you to join the debate and to contribute your insights. For many years I have heard teachers, school leaders and others bemoan the impact of politicians, driven by ideologies, on education systems and ask how we can take back control. Now we can. The way to do this is through pure and true system leadership by all in the system. That way we can shape the system we want from within, rather than being dictated to from outside and 'above'. The basis of that system leadership should be collaboration, professionalism and actions that are informed by sound research and not political whim. 

A lot of governments who talk about developing system leadership might come to regret this, because they still mean a form of system leadership that their policy can still control. With true system leadership control really resides within the system and the professionals within it.


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