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Differentiated Learning and Development for School Leaders

As a headteacher for eighteen years now, I have completed and endured lots of professional development. Some of this was truly inspirational and has had profound effects and impacts on my thinking and my practice. Unfortunately, a lot of it failed to deliver the same outcomes. I would say that the professional development and learning that has had the greatest impact have been those identified and chosen by myself, as part of a process of continual reflection and professional development and growth, matched to my individual needs. Why would it be any other way? The trouble is that is not how a lot of centrally organised professional development for leaders operates. It should, but it doesn't. 'Yet!' as Carol Dweck might observe.

No, as a school leader you are subject to much learning and professional development, that is identified and directed at you by your employers. When I first began my journey of professional development as a new school leader, I was like a sponge, soaking up all the development opportunities I was offered, in a bid to learn more and up-skill myself and my practice, and as quickly as I could. Some of this was good and useful, but plenty was less so and was quickly discarded, if not altogether forgotten. A memorable early session had myself and colleagues standing in a marked out swimming pool on a training room floor, with the depth of water we chose indicating where we were now in our understanding of Curriculum for Excellence. A true example of 'drowning, not waving' as far as I was concerned!

Local Authorities, who employ most headteachers, also recognise they have a duty to develop those headteachers and help them to grow. Unfortunately, they often choose to do this by devising a series 'Headteacher Development Days' and proceed to do it to them. Trouble is, that model doesn't work very well. What does work is a process and programme of leadership development that is tailored to individuals and their needs. 'One size fits all' doesn't work in school development and neither does it in leadership development. It was only as I became more experienced, and continued to read and engage with research, that I really recognised the power, and necessity, of professional development that was part of an on-going process and which was tailored to my needs

Graham Donaldson recognised in 'Teaching Scotland's Future', published by Scottish Government in 2010, that there were issues around professional development for all school leaders, but especially for experienced school leaders. He recommended the setting up of a virtual Scottish College for Educational Leadership, and that this college should consider how it could help experienced headteachers continue their development, as well as how the system could tap into that experience that resided in those practitioners. Out of this emerged SCEL, which has become very real and not so virtual, and I was pleased to be part of the first cohort of Fellows of the college. This took my professional learning and development to another level. SCEL is now firmly established as an organisation that is providing leadership development and pathways at all levels in Scotland, and this professional development is very much shaped jointly by the college and the participants to meet their needs.

 I think there are probably two main issues to consider in the light of this. the first is that school leaders really need to take charge of their own professional development. Just as they ask of their teachers, they need to be reflective about their practice, and their impact on learning. They should be able to identify their strengths and to be equally honest in identifying the areas they need to develop further. They then have to consider the ways they may develop their thinking and practice. This will almost certainly be through professional reading and engagement with research as part of a collaborative, but tailored process. Some of this they may do individually, and arrange themselves, other parts might require the support of organisations like SCEL or universities. They may even use Social Media like Twitter and blogs as a stimulus for more thinking and consideration of how they may be more effective. Whichever route they choose, they need to keep in mind that this should all be part of a career-long process of professional development and growth that is done by them, not to them. Professional development cannot just be lifted off a shelf and completed, its about a disposition to keep on learning and developing. One-off events can be just that, or they can be part of an on-going and meaningful process to support professional and personal growth.

The second consideration is for local authorities. If they haven't already done so, they really need to consider their programmes for headteacher development to see if they are fit for purpose. Delivering the same training to all headteachers, no matter their level of experience, or development needs, just won't cut it any more. Too many headteacher hours are still being wasted by headteacher development days that are generic in nature, and which have little use for many in the room. Headteachers are just like any other learners, they will all be at different stages of professional development and so this needs to be pitched so that it helps them to move on, not get frustrated by another wasted day out of school. Days in school are precious, if we are giving them up this has to be for something worthwhile and which will help move our own, and our school's practice forwards. Fortunately, we are seeing some movement on this, but we still have a some way to go.


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