Skip to main content

Lemmings of despair?

High-impact and effective leadership is not easy. Having said that, it should be recognised that leadership is crucial to the success of schools and education systems. Here in Scotland the government's current proposals for system reform, no matter what you think about a lot of the detail contained in their ongoing 'consultation', does recognise the crucial importance of leadership to the success of our schools. So much so that a Headteachers' Charter is part of their proposals. I suppose there should be no surprise in the primacy identified in leadership given the composition of the government's own panel of international education advisors, including as it does Andy Hargreaves, Alma Harris, Carol Campbell, Chris Chapman, Graham Donaldson, Pasi Sahlberg and Pak Tee Ng, all of whom have written and researched about the importance of leadership, at all levels, in schools and systems. Of course, as with most government policy, there is another agenda that is to yet reveal itself, which may have more to do with control and more direction for school leaders from above, but there is no doubt that leadership is seen as crucial in our schools and across the system.

In this post I am thinking mainly about Headteacher or Principal roles in our schools. Though we should never lose sight of the importance of teacher leadership as well as other formal leadership roles, and their importance to the wellbeing of our schools and systems. Having stepped down from my own position as a school leader in 2017, I have had the opportunity to consider my own role and performance as a school leader over eighteen years, as well as the reading and research I have engaged with around leadership during my time as a leader, and since. The basis of this post is a talk I was asked to give on leadership to school leaders. I never actually delivered the talk but came upon the slides and messages I prepared just the other day, and thought I would share some of them on here.

As a leader we can sometimes act like lemmings. We are swept away by the crowd round about us and all the activity that everyone mimics, heading full pelt towards our inevitable fate. We are all incredibly busy, and being busy sometimes can stop us from getting our heads up to consider where we are actually heading. As a school, and as a leader, being busy is not enough. We have to think about impact. No, not that at the bottom of the cliff that our lemming analogy points us towards, but our impact for our learners and communities in the schools we lead. To do that, I have always contended, that we need to get our heads up to see what is coming and to plan a way forward, as well as to see what is happening currently. It is important that we are always asking the questions, what is the impact for our learners, staff and ourselves of all this busyness? If it is not positive, the sooner we stop doing it, the better for everyone and the less the likelihood of everyone disappearing over some metaphorical cliff edge.

I, and many others, have recognised the importance of relationships in human organisations and systems like schools, for them to have the greatest positive impacts for all their members. The Scottish government produced a document in 2012 entitled 'Better Relationships, Better Learning, Better Behaviour'. Whilst this was document was aimed at pupil behaviour, it did recognise the importance of positive relationships to all aspects of school work. This always seemed a no-brainer to myself and most primary school educators, so it can be disturbing when we see some of the approaches that are taken by some of our secondary school colleagues. As a school leader, you neglect the importance of positive relationships in all that you are trying to achieve. Andy Hargreaves and Michael Fullan explored this further in 1998 in 'What's Worth Fighting For Out There?' In an article for the National College for School Leadership, written in 2002, Alama Harris noted in her study of a group of secondary schools in challenging circumstances 'The empirical evidence from teachers, senior managers, pupils and headteachers point towards a model of leadership that is fundamentally concerned with building positive relationships and empowering others to lead.' (Busyness, or intiativitis as Michael Fullan has called it, puts relationships at risk and may in fact find little time or importance attached to them. As school leaders, we need to think about the implications of this.

Relationships are amongst the important key areas that school leaders need to focus on, and they permeate everything else we are trying to achieve.. Others I have identified would include the following; Keeping the main thing the main thing. The main thing is always learning and teaching, and we should ensure that all that we are doing, or are focused on, deals with this in a completely holistic way. We are aiming to develop the whole learner, so our systems, structures, practice, values and attitudes should all reflect and contribute to this aim. Be driven by your values. It is easy to speak of values, or to even write them down or display them. However, if you are not living them, or bringing them alive in all our actions and inter-actions, they are not your true values. We have to avoid agendas driven by others, driven by data, driven by research, driven by test results, etc. All of these are important and they should help inform our actions. It is our values that should be the true touchstone for our leadership actions and decisions. Build trust. It is crucial that school leaders build trust across the whole school community. The impact of a lack of trust includes surface-level compliance and a lack of innovation or taking of risks. Without these characteristics, it is hard for any school to move forward in any meaningful way, no matter how you might like to 'spin' you story. Seek to develop and promote teacher agency and adaptive expertise. As a school leader, you cannot do it all yourself, but as a coherent and collaborative team you can achieve much. When staff have true agency and adaptive expertise, you are equipping them to be self-improving practitioners, which in turn develops into a self-improving school culture. On the back of this you will find that you the development of teacher leadership and dispersed leadership easier to achieve, with benefits for individuals as well as for the school as a whole. Promote and develop collaborative and collegiate cultures. The school leaders has a responsibility to help coalesce the individual and disparate talents and expertise of the school team into a whole that is greater than the sum of its individual parts, the gestalt of school development. Gate-keep on behalf of your staff. I gave up a long time ago waiting on someone from above in the educational establishment and hierarchy to recognise that not every issue or idea can be immediately cascaded down onto schools and their teachers. Therefore, I decided I needed to protect staff from the constant stream of demands and expectations from elsewhere. We achieved this by referring to our values and sticking strictly to our School Improvement Plan, which became smaller and more focused as I developed my own practice in this respect. Be informed by research and data. School leaders need to know how to critically engage with research and data to help inform their actions, which will be context specific. I have always believed that all teachers, never mind their leaders, should read and engage with research, otherwise they are subject to the demands and whims of others constantly. As a professional, you should be able to explain your actions and decisions based on sound research, informed by school data. As with everything, you have to be realistic in this and keep your engagement proportionate and manageable. Support and be an active participant in professional development activities. If we want to develop as individuals and as a school, we should commit to a career-long engagement with professional development. This does not mean going on, or sending people on, lots of courses. This should be grounded in your particular context and measured in terms of improvement for learners. Be professionally curious. it is important that school leaders do not get swamped by all they have to do, so that they do not have time to be curious about their role and their impact. Professional curiosity can lead to major insights and development, which is self-initiated rather than imposed or directed by others. Lead more than manage. There is no doubt that to be an effective school leader, you also have to be an effective manager. The trouble is, we can devote all of our working day, and more, to management activities, so that their is no time left to lead. As a school leader you have a responsibility to act leaderly, to do that you have to think in a leaderly way. You role is bigger than the here and now, you have to consider and prepare for the future, and to how you can deliver on your vision for your school community. Despite all of these aspects you have to think about and deal with, slow down! One of the insights I gained as a school leader is that by slowing down it is possible to achieve more, and your achievements are likely to be deep and sustainable, rather than shallow and fleeting. We have cultures in many education systems and schools that promote busyness and the flitting from one 'thing' to another. When you have a deep learning culture, development and growth is seen as a continual ongoing process that all can commit to, and which you, as the school leader, can actively support. Lastly I would say smile and remember to say thank you. When you get swamped by all that you have to do as a school leader, you can lose sight of the little things that can make a big difference. Amongst these is smiling and showing your appreciation for all that your staff do. How much of your time would this take? But, the impact is immense.  It was pointed out to me a while ago that teacher working conditions are also pupil learning conditions, this is so true. Never lose sight that it is a privilege to lead a school and, despite all the challenges, it remains one of the best jobs you can ever be lucky enough to experience. Show it!

I will finish with what I think might be considered as the 'seven deadly sins' of school leadership. No matter the circumstances or reasons, you should try to avoid these at all costs. Many of them produce the absolute opposite of what I have described above, so not much further explanation is needed. They are; Micromanaging everything. More common than it should be and a sign of lack of trust. Saying one thing and doing another. You are what you do, not what you say you will do. Again destroys trust and relationships. Following the latest fads and trends. Leads to ever changing focus and increasing workloads for frazzled staff. Searching for 'silver bullets'. There aren't any. The only thing that works is the long hard slog of a focused, connected, development process. Letting people down. This is not about trying to please everyone, but more about betraying your professed vision and values, at the cost to your community. Compliance at the cost of doing what is right. Leadership is not easy, but it helps if you are clear about what your lines in the sand are, beyond which you will not move. Always put the learners and community first. Being invisible. Highly effective leaders are visible and active participants in all that the school is involved with, especially learning in classrooms. You can't achieve this from your office!

In the recent book 'Flip The System UK' headteacher Rae Snape asked us to stop being 'Lemmings of Despair' and instead look to become 'Flamingos of Hope'. Which are you?

Popular posts from this blog

Some thoughts on Scottish education

This week I was asked if I would go along to speak to labour MSPs and MPs about Scottish education and schools. My brief was to talk about education. its current state, the reality of how the attainment gap can be tackled, how teachers can help government address the challenges of poverty, and how we might start to reinvest in our schools and our teaching staff. The politicians did not want to hear from the 'same people' who always spoke to them, and wanted to hear from someone 'fresh from the chalk-face'. I had forty five minutes, about twenty minutes input from me then a discussion and question and answer session. No pressure there then! Anyway, I gave it my best shot.

I started with a brief introduction to myself and my background, to give them some idea of who this person was, and why they might be able to help them and I tried to cover most of the following in my time slot.

I started with some the positives from our system.

Stuff we should be proud of:
Our learners …

Structure and systems versuses learning, teaching and leadership

A couple of days ago Education Scotland announced that they planned to make changes to how they carried out school inspections as, 'the first step in a radical new way Education Scotland will work to support and drive improvement in schools.' This new 'radical' approach was to carry out more inspections, coupled with employment of new HMIEs and 'associate assessors' so that they could raise the number of inspections from the 180 expected to be undertaken this year, to a target figure of 250 for the following year. Amongst their stated aims was a desire to engage with every school in Scotland each year in order to support schools, teachers and school leaders and to drive forward improvement. They will also seek to include the 'younger voice' in inspections and include more use of learners in the inspection process, aiming to produce a How Good Is Our School (HGIOS) for young people to help them become engaged. (give me strength!) In addition, they will b…

Scottish education governance announcement

John Swinney has today made his long expected announcement regarding the governance structure he wishes to introduce into Scottish education. This announcement followed a consultation on his proposals and his determination that Scottish education needs to improve, and part of the way of achieving this is by giving headteachers, teachers and parents more say in what goes on in their schools, As you can imagine, there has been a lot of resistance to his proposals, especially from local authorities, who have an almost 100% responsibility for public schools at the moment.

When he stood up in the Scottish parliament, Mr Swinney announced that his new governance structure would be underpinned by three 'key pillars. These are to be enhanced career and development opportunities for teachers combined with a Headteacher Charter, Regional Improvement Collaboratives and Local Government.

The 'statutory Headteacher Charter' would sit at the heart of these reforms he said and this would…