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School leadership: stop shooting ourselves in the foot!

Let me say at the start of this post that I was a school leader for over 18 years and I loved almost every minute of it. School leadership was challenging, intellectually, emotionally and physically at times, but that was always a part of the allure for me. I entered teaching wanting to make a difference. I became a school leader to be able to make more of a difference, for more learners and families. I am not alone in this view and I have met, and worked with, many colleagues who feel exactly the way I do, about their role, the challenges and the opportunities it presents.

Yet, we have a problem in Scotland, and elsewhere, in that we are struggling to get people to apply for school leadership positions, especially headteacher ones. Why? is a question many of us within the system, and our employers, have been asking for some time now. When school leadership roles become available, there is often a dearth of suitable applicants.The answers people have come up with point to the nature of some of the problems, for me.

In my last few years as a headteacher, I was constantly told and often read, that we school leaders were a big part of the problem. We didn't 'sell' the job well enough and we were always moaning about the difficulties of the job, especially when faced by so much change, austerity, cuts, accountability and so on. We were told in no uncertain terms we needed to talk the job up more, stop moaning and complaining, and instead demonstrate how great the job was, and how people with talent and aspirations should aim to follow in our footsteps and become the next generation of leaders. The trouble with messages like this, if you hear them often enough it becomes easy to believe them, and start to think you are part of the problem, rather than a source of the solution.

I would contend that it is important that we are open and honest with future leaders about both the opportunities and the challenges. If we are having to sugar-coat the role there is something wrong with the role, or the people aspiring to such roles. School leadership is awash with opportunities, as long as you are aware of, and are prepared to face, the challenges that come with the role. Dealing with the challenges means acknowledging them and finding strategies and solutions for those you can, that still enable you to remain true to your values and principles as a professional educator. It doesn't mean pretending they don't exist. When aspiring school leaders see current leaders dealing with all the issues and tensions that currently exist in the role, whilst remaining up-beat and positive about  their ability to make a difference, they provide those aspiring leaders of the future with a model of what can still be achieved. If they can retain their sense of humour and their humanity in the role, so much the better.

It is my view that many of those who have been telling us that we are a big part of the problem, fail to detect any irony between their own actions and what they have identified as our own failings. Take inspections for instance. School inspections happen in the Scottish system, and just about every other, with a few notable exceptions. Finland for instance, but what do they know? The Scottish system of inspection is not as draconian as that found in many others, and aims to be more supportive, based around a professional dialogue that supports a school on its particular development journey. This is fine in principle, if you are accepting of inspection as a necessary part of the accountability agenda. However, what inspection is described as and what they feel like, is all but destroyed by the imposition of 'gradings' at the end of the inspection process. Inspectors may have been in a school for a number of days talking to teachers, learners, parents, partners and school leaders, all as part of the dialogue around school development that aims to help and support that school. However, at the end of the process a letter is written to parents about the process and findings, and whether the inspectors are confident about the school's ability to keep moving forward, accompanied by the 'grades'.

The effect of the grades handed out have an impact on all staff in a school, but the greatest is on the school leader. No-one else is identified in any inspection findings, apart from the headteacher or principal. The fact that these will appear in local media, just adds to the impact. I was contacted by a colleague headteacher recently at 12.40am about a recent experience she has had. She has worked her socks off for over twelve months trying to drive forward a small rural school in a remote area, and she felt that she had been kicked in the teeth by the 'gradings' that were going to be attached to her letter of findings following an inspection. I have two questions about this. the first is, What useful purpose does the attachment of such gradings serve in this process? If it really is a professional engagement and dialogue, it should be exactly that, to help inform a headteacher, and local authority about where a school is, with suggestions for steps to develop. Hopefully, this will confirm the headteacher and local authority view of where that school is as well. If it doesn't, then that should promote more professional dialogue between all parties. My second question is, what impact do you think experiences like this might have on headteacher recruitment? I really don't think it will help the situation. However, if people could see this process as really supportive and part of an ongoing professional dialogue, their view might change. If inspectors then issued a letter to parents stating they had visited the school, engaged with everyone, including the local authority, and were confident the school understood where it was, and where it was heading, in its development, there should be no need to place any artificial 'grading' onto the process. The letter might suggest when the school might next be inspected, as part of this ongoing process of engagement.

How this process might change in the light of the latest structural review occurring in Scottish education remains to be seen.


Most researchers, writers and school leaders understand the impact of school leadership on any school, in any setting. In Scotland 'Teaching Scotland's Future' penned by Graham Donaldson in 2011 addressed the issue of teacher education and leadership preparation. One of the key aspects of this was his consideration of the development of leadership at all levels within the system, and out of which emerged the formation of SCEL. The Scottish College for Educational Leadership. In its early days, as it found its footing, SCEL focused on senior school leaders, but quickly realised and recognised its responsibility for considering leadership at all levels in the system. Over the last few years SCEL has led the development of Frameworks and qualifications for school leaders and those aspiring to future leadership roles. In a short period it has grown, under the leadership of CEO Gillian Hamilton, and developed links with universities here in Scotland, as well as with academics and researchers around the world. Alma Harris spoke at the recent SCEL and GTCS awards ceremony in Edinburgh of how SCEL had improved Scoltand's standing and reputation around the world and how we should be proud of the work undertaken by Gillian and her team. SCEL has been considered one of the successes of Scottish education over recent years, and gave myself and others, great hope that we were developing an organisation that was going to grow future leaders, as well as help current ones develop further. I, of course, have to declare an interest, as SCEL helped my develop as a senior leader from 2012 onwards. I have seen, and experienced, the difference it has made and the impact it has had, so have many others. So it was with some dismay that we heard that SCEL was to be swallowed up by Education Scotland as part of John Swinney's Governance Review. What happens next we await to see, but many are concerned on the impact this change will have on SCEL, its work, and the attractiveness of leadership in Scotland.

If we are serious about addressing the issues around headteacher recruitment we have to stop shooting ourselves in the foot. We need systems and structures which support teachers and leaders, and which are seen to do so. What we need to get away from are cultures and systems that make it harder for school leaders to do what can be a difficult job, which constantly change so that politicians can show they 'are taking charge' and that 'the status quo is not an option' and which are low on trust and respect for the role.


School leaders are the best models for future leaders. We need to consider how we support them to be the best they can be, so they can help grown the next school leaders. Putting barriers in the way, and making the job ever more onerous and difficult helps no-one, and may be putting off more from stepping up.

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