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EducationEducational LeadershipScotlandThe Herald

TAKING THE LEAD Many educators are suspicious of an emphasis on leadership but are the best school leaders born to the job or can they be trained?

By 29 January 2012No Comments

Leadership is at the core of contemporary discussion about education.  The final quality indicator in How Good Is Our School – the handbook by which Scottish schools are measured – is Management, Leadership and Quality Assurance.  Leadership training is championed by everyone from education minister Fiona Hyslop to Sir Tom Hunter.
The concept of leadership is not however uncontroversial.  Many teachers, particularly in the state sector, are highly suspicious of the present emphasis on leadership, seeing it as another aspect of a hostile, market-oriented culture, critical of schools and teachers and eager to impose greater control over them.
Linking leadership with the “improvement agenda” only reinforces concerns that the process is driven by forces which see little value in anything which is not bought and sold on the market place.
Leadership is often perceived as an elitist concept which challenges both professional autonomy and a certain rude democracy among Scottish teachers.  There is even a view that the essential job of teaching could as well be implemented without the management elite which add little value to the chalk-face process.
Recently the Scottish Government Education Department sponsored an international summer school on school leadership.  The event exposed several of these arguments and developed other key controversies.
Keir Bloomer, former Chief Executive of Clackmannanshire Council, indicated that while there was an intellectual debate about modernisation in the health service, there was no such debate in education.
A 1999 report by US finance company Merrill Lynch, The Book of Knowledge: Investing in the Growing Education and Training Industry has given its verdict.  It concluded that education was a cottage industry marked by low investment, primitive technology and ineffective management which is ripe for take-over.
That alone should make those who doubt the need for vigorous leadership think twice.
Peter Gronn, of the Department of Educational Studies at Glasgow University, suggested that a promiscuous use of the term ‘leadership’ is contributing to confusion over what it actually means.
Much of what passed for leadership might simply be administration or management, the essential coordination of complex forces and organisations, Gronn says.  Nonetheless, he concludes that in an intensely complex world traditional leadership patterns no longer suffice.  No single leader can be expected to command the diverse skills and knowledge required in any organisation.
“Distributed leadership”, networks connecting critical masses of inter-dependent and influential people and regular collaborators, was essential.
Alma Harris of Warwick University’s Institute of Education, also argues for distributed leadership. Good leadership can transform schools, she claims.
Such leadership should support significant, systematic and sustained change to transform learning.  It should release the enthusiasm and potential of those not usually offered leadership positions within traditional hierarchies.
In a world of global networks, hierarchical leadership is inherently inadequate, she argues.  Distributed leadership is not delegation but a transfer of power for a particular end or set of goals.
Certain decisions in schools, particularly in complex areas such as IT, may need to be given to others – not in terms of simple delegation but by handing over the role of leading and decision-making as well.
Harris argues that school leadership teams to engage the many rather than the few.  However, it does not abolish the requirement for vertical leadership structures, she says.
Indeed, she admits that there is a paradox at the heart the concept of distributed leadership, which is that without stable, consistent leadership in schools, it can be incredibly fragile.
Others dispute the value of “distributed leadership”.  Graham Donaldson, of Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Education, warns that it could also diffuse the individual responsibility for leadership, and potentially dilute the concept of leadership until it becomes meaningless.
Those such as Headteachers who ‘have taken the Queen’s shilling’ and accepted leadership, that they have a responsibility to question the quality of their own leadership, he says, arguing that distributed leadership must not become a maverick’s charter, an excuse for professional atomisation.
He also however returned to the issue of what is leadership and warned that leadership can be such a powerful image that it can almost seem to disparage management.
Since “vision” is frequently quoted as the hallmark of leaders, perhaps Donaldson is wary of anything that blurs that vision in schools.  Three decades ago the priority was educational administration.  Two decades ago it became management and today it is leadership.  Donaldson also warns against placing such a strong focus on leadership that it leads to an unwanted downgrading of the value of effective management.
A radical challenge to the distributed leadership model is delivered by Patrick Duignan of the Australian Catholic University.  He argues that leadership is first and foremost about transforming human beings and developing their essential attributes, especially self-belief and confidence.
He went on however to deny the validity of competence based professional development for leadership, indicating that good leaders can be formed but not trained.  He asks advocates of leadership distribution to define what a leader actually distributes.  Leadership is an influencing process resulting from authentic relationships, he says. Without relationships there was no influence and therefore no leadership.
The nature of leadership was also questioned by Richard Holloway, former Bishop of Edinburgh.  He too suggests that perhaps leaders are born and not taught, that leadership is a charism, a power freely given by grace.  It may be unwise to suggest to teachers that there is something which can’t be taught, he jokes, but taking risks and occasional heresies are themselves leaderly tactics.  Using flying geese as a model of cooperation, shared direction, distributed tasks and mutual encouragement, Holloway urged leaders to “honk encouragingly from behind”.  Over the course of the week-long event, a consensus emerged around the idea that leadership was an ethical process which operated above all else in the area of human relationships.  Most challenges facing educational leaders present themselves as dilemmas, paradoxes or tensions that are, usually, contests of values or of ethical contradictions.  For participants, that was a humbling conclusion but one that stood in refreshing contrast to competence-based tick lists of leadership qualities.
This article was first published in The Herald on 2 October 2007.

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