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School Leadership: time to smell the roses?

It is some time since I wrote anything on this blog directly about school leadership. Having left my post as a school leader some seven months ago, I think I have had some time to reflect more on leadership in schools from a different perspective. I have still been writing and thinking about schools since I stepped down for a notional retirement. I say 'notional' because it would seem that I am just as busy and engaged as I was before, but now it is 'my busy' not someone else's. Anyway, I have also kept in touch with lots of former colleagues and school leaders, either directly, face-to-face or virtually, through platforms like Twitter. During this engagement and over the time, I have been able to observe and think about school leadership a bit further, having the time and the headspace to do so.

There is no doubt that school leadership remains a challenging role for anyone to undertake, and I have nothing but admiration for anyone who steps up and into the role. There is equally no doubt that the performance and culture of any school is still directly affected most, positively or negatively, by the  person who has the formal responsibility of leading it. This can lead to schools, and their staff, achieving fabulous things on a daily basis for all the learners and families that form the learning community. However, it can also lead to some schools suffering from a different type of leadership and experience, that leads to a lot of negative experiences for staff, learners and families.

I have been considering lately why this might happen?

It may be that the wrong person was appointed in the first place. Given all the application processes and interviews candidates have, for prospective headteacher roles, one would think the chances of appointing the wrong person for a particular post should be minimised. Of course, this depends very much on the right job description and person specification being drawn up in the first place, then appointment panels having the right sort of skills and experience to be able to match interviewees with what they are supposed to be looking for. Interview outcomes are still very subjective, despite attempts to standardise this. A lot of the interview processes I hear off seem more designed to show how clever the architects of these are, rather than finding the right person for the post! You can already see where this process might start to go awry. Add to this is the fact that there are definitely issues around attracting enough candidates, of the necessary calibre, for school leadership posts, leading to interview panels left with a very small pool to select from. Stories of one candidate, or fewer, applying for leadership roles, and of multiple searches and advertisements for these, are quite common in Scotland and I am sure elsewhere. At least in Scotland we are taking positive steps to address some of these issues through the Scottish College for Educational Leadership (SCEL).

If you have a faulty appointment process and fewer applications from which to select, then one can see how the job of finding the right leader, and best fit, for schools could go wrong at the very start. The longer the process of appointing a new school leader drags on, the more likely an eventually hurried or desperate appointment is made, ignoring any concerns about the 'successful' candidate, in that desperation to at least appoint someone. Then, in the case of local authority employers, they can move on to the next post to be filled. I would also suggest that the growth of Academies and Multi-Academy Trusts in England, and the quite obscene salaries now been offered for leadership of these, are adding another factor that might encourage some to apply for school leader positions with the completely wrong motivations towards school leadership.

However, lets assume the appointment process has gone reasonably well, and a suitable candidate has been appointed. Things can still go wrong. I am sure most headteachers or school leaders start a new role with a clear vision of what they would like to achieve, and the difference they want to make for the learners in the establishment they will lead. They will have shared this vision at interview, and may have refined it further as they get to know the school and staff better. There is definitely a 'honeymoon' period for most new school leaders, whilst they get to know and understand their new role and context, and vice versa. If you are employed by the local authority, they may leave you alone for a period of time, the may even provide support through mentoring or coaching, but even they seem to understand you have a lot to do as you get to know your new school deeply, then begin the process of developing it further.

As a new headteacher, you may have  a plan for your actions in the first week, month, three months, six months, and so on. Generally, you will be allowed to get on with this as you grow into the leadership of your new establishment.

If everyone who takes on school leadership is clear about their vision, their values, principles and aims, which are clear and positive in nature, what happens to deflect them from these so that their leadership mutates into something more negative? I have seen this happen many times, and have spoken to headteachers who were extremely positive and enthusiastic about all they hoped to achieve at the outset of their appointment, then have met them again a few years down the line to discover their view and their attitudes have changed. Some recognise this themselves, others don't. So, what happens to bring about such change?

Plenty of people in the system would say that a re-shaping of school-leader vision and approach is inevitable as they become more aware of the challenges and responsibilities of the post. They become more politically aware and begin to better understand their responsibilities as corporate and sytem leaders. To a certain extent this is true. I was always fond of saying if you were the same teacher as you were twelve months ago, you have wasted a year. The same applies to school leaders. I would expect any school leader worth their salt to be continually developing their understanding and practice throughout their career. With more experience often comes more responsibility and influence, school leaders need to embrace this. However, this is not the sort of professional growth and change I am talking about.

I am speaking of school leaders who have changed negatively because of the pressures of the role, or the demands of the system. Many of these leaders became leaders because they were excellent teachers and they understood learning and teaching deeply. However, they seem to forget all of this when they become school leaders, as the focus of their activity shifts from learning and teaching to systems, structures, accountability measures and meeting the demands of employers or governments. How often have you experienced school leaders who have forgotten, or decide to take no notice of, the daily demands on class teachers, as they seek to impose the latest directive from above them in the hierarchy? Equally, there are school leaders who have moved further up the hierarchical chain of command themselves, and have completely lost sight of the demands placed on school leaders on a daily basis, or how they coped with this when they were a leader in school. Either way, the effects are detrimental to their leadership and schools.

Having been a school leader for eighteen years, I think I have a good understanding of the competing demands for the time and attention of  leaders. I acknowledge that we have roles and responsibilities beyond the immediate confines of our school, and that we need to balance these against everything else expected of us. What I do feel is important is that we never lose sight of why we wanted to be teachers, then school leaders, in the first place. We must always ground our actions with our values and vision for education, and should continue to do so throughout our careers. Yes, we have to develop and improve our practice and understandings of all the aspects that fall under our remit, part of which is learning to compromise at times and pick the fights we are prepared to have. However, if we have our learners and families front and centre of our thoughts and actions at all times, then we are more likely to take the right actions for the right reasons. It is when we become focused on the demands of the system and structures that we can sometime loose our moral and professional compass.

I have met too many headteachers during my career, and since I left, who say things like 'I am just keeping my head down' or 'I am working from one holiday to the next'. When such attitudes and behaviours become normalised it points to something being drastically wrong in the system, and the portents for the future are not good. I would ask all school leaders to be aware of their behaviours and attitudes, and the subtle changes that can happen over time, and for our system leaders to think carefully about how they might be contributing to the destabilisation of the very system the purport to support.

Any system is made up of people, otherwise it is just a programme. Therefore, I believe it is important that all the people help to shape it, by challenging what needs to be challenged, and supporting everything that makes us better. It is too easy to slip into something that is detrimental for us all, but especially our learners and families.

Time to smell the roses of the system, methinks!

In my next post, I will look at some of the ways you can protect your leadership  from the negative changes identified here.

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