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Edinburgh headteacher Alex Wood discusses with a number of his colleagues around the city the increasing problems when it comes to leadership recruitment

28 Aug 2008
Succession planning for school leadership is increasingly undermined by a lack of sufficient applicants for senior management posts in Scottish schools, according to Dr Jim O’Neil, dean of Edinburgh University’s Moray House School of Education.
The theme in Dr O’Neil’s recent warning was echoed by Fiona Hyslop, the Scottish government’s education secretary. At the recent International Summer School on School Leadership she stated her concern about the shortage of candidates for headteacher posts.
At the same conference, Jill Bourne, dean of education at Strathclyde University, spoke of the fear of burn-out among experienced and successful school leaders.
Part of the problem is demographic. The early 1970s saw a huge boost in teacher numbers as the combination of increased numbers of young people in schools, the raising of the school leaving age, and “comprehensivisation”, all demanded more teachers. That cohort is now retiring.
The problem, however, is also the unwillingness of many of the best of a new generation of teachers to seek posts in management. The tragic death of Borders primary headteacher Irene Hogg, after a challenging inspection, has brought this issue of overwhelming pressure on headteachers into the harsh glare of public debate.
One measure of the problem is that in the period immediately prior to the summer holidays, seven out of Edinburgh’s 23 secondaries had acting or seconded headteachers.
Only two of the present Edinburgh secondary heads have 10 or more years’ service as secondary heads.
In another Scottish local authority, in the last four years, four of its eight secondaries have had headteachers retire or move on prior to reaching 60. In the course of the last six months, at least three Scottish secondary heads, in different local authorities, have retired or stepped down after inspections.
Increasingly headteachers are openly stating their dissatisfaction with the inspection process. Neil McGowan, rector of Larbert High School, described his school’s recent inspection as having been “brutal” – and that was an inspection from which the school and his leadership emerged positively.
Krystin Clyne, recently retired headteacher of Kaimes Special School in Edinburgh, saw her school’s most recent inspection as having “knocked the stuffing” out of a hard-working and committed staff, a process which took a physical and mental toll on all who were involved.
Again, the report was positive but characterised by understatement and by a failure to make explicit in the report positive comments given verbally.
Ms Clyne saw a staff that consistently gave 100 per cent given the message that they could still do more. A year later, and a year before reaching 60, she retired.
There are two possible explanations for this process, which may be contradictory or may be complementary. One is that the pressure of inspection and the whole process of evaluation are weeding out weak headteachers, and no bad thing.
The other is that the system is putting undue pressure on schools and that the strongest as well as the weakest can be damaged and demoralised by it.
Professor Brian Boyd of Strathclyde University suggests that leadership is a good word that keeps bad company. School difficulties are too often attributed, invalidly, to poor leadership.
Peter Galloway, recently retired after 23 years service as headteacher of Trinity Academy in Edinburgh, confirms that there is a crisis in leadership in Scottish education.
He believes that we are appointing managers, not leaders, at a time when it is leaders, perhaps even gamblers and risk-takers, who are required to lead schools.
Mr Galloway is convinced that a headteacher’s job is a “people job” that requires a sense of humour and an ability to inspire, enthuse and energise people. Someone who appreciates their staff and knows their pupils. What we are getting however, are administrators. Part of the problem is the poor selection process, one which puts an inordinate emphasis on paper qualifications, especially the Scottish Qualification for Headship.
If Mr Galloway’s instincts are valid, then the process may too often be selecting the wrong people. Not only can the pressures of a managerial culture drive good leaders out of the job, its pedantic approach to selection can put weak leaders in post.
One highly respected Edinburgh primary depute headteacher has newly retired three years early. She spent two years effectively acting as headteacher while the post-holder was regularly absent as a result of stress. When the stressed headteacher retired, the replacement was a systems-master and an administrative expert, but with limited people skills. After two years of implementing key parts of the current headteacher’s task, the depute also decided it was time to go.
Jack Hamilton, headteacher at Boroughmuir, locates part of the issue in the National Agreement, which abolished the assistant headteacher grade, flattened structures, and severely reduced the role of the senior depute headteacher.
At one point the jump from depute head to head was a small step, now it is a giant step. The single depute in a school developed experience, was mentored by the head, and was able to decide whether or not the head’s job was an appropriate next step.
With the abolition of the assistant head’s post, the more equitable distribution of responsibilities among a team of deputes, and the consequently reduced opportunities for the head to mentor and train the depute, the gap between depute and head is now too wide.
Mr Hamilton also believes that once in post, headteachers receive insufficient support from local authorities unless things start going drastically wrong.
Mr McGowan sees it similarly. The culture of preparation for headship, earning credibility, and gaining a cache of experience has largely gone. He suggests that it is experience that provides the reserves of strength to manage the crises which inevitably arise and test headteachers.
Good potential leaders, however, are often unwilling to pursue such formal routes as the Scottish Qualification for Headship and are sceptical about the fact that those who tick such boxes seem to achieve promotion.
Alan Williamson, headteacher at Hawick High School, echoes that fear and questions whether too many heads’ posts are allocated on the basis of a seeming mastery of academic or technical skills but without consideration of the people skills.
Approaches to leadership in Canadian schools have inspired Karen Prophet, headteacher at Firhill High School, who, last year, attended a study trip to Canada, where strategic leadership flows directly from the Ministry, but local initiative is encouraged and well resourced.
Canada offers a national leadership strategy that manages to balance the need for central direction while empowering headteachers and schools to initiate within a local context. In Scotland, on the other hand, leadership development emanates from a number of organisations – Learning and Teaching Scotland, the inspectorate, the local authorities, the SCSSA (Scottish Centre for Studies in School Administration) and so on.
School leaders are being placed in unsupported positions. Curriculum for Excellence is a good example with a lack of resources, lack of exemplar models, lack of curriculum balance, lack of assessment and lists of changes from S1 to S3.
To suggest that headteachers need to implement these changes, but with little room for initiative, is a step too far for some headteachers.
Interestingly in Canada there is no inspectorate system and nor do they want one. They are committed to self-evaluation but from a bottom up approach, and working with struggling staff in a humane way.
The agenda of the 1980s, with its acute distrust of the public sector, dragooned Scottish schools into a culture of pedantic accountability and intense pressure. That culture has been systematically applied by the inspectorate and by local authorities. Headteachers ran in ever-quicker circles chasing their attainment tails and being measured against a series of arithmetically-measurable indices. As a result, fewer high quality deputes, who can see what the job entails, are applying for heads’ posts.
At the same time, a bureaucratic approach to personnel matters, partly originating in a justifiable concern about bias and discrimination in appointments, developed a competence-based, tick-list approach to management appointments.
Weaker candidates are now often achieving heads’ posts by virtue of technical skills, formal qualifications and a set of easily assessable competencies, while key people skills are untested in selection processes. These factors overlay the problems created by major demographic changes within the teaching profession.
It is to the credit of the Scottish government that it has recognised that there is a problem. Will it have the courage to take such drastic steps as creating a system without the mandarins of the inspectorate, or a system where there was a direct relationship between the Scottish government and schools without any role for local authorities?
Or is there some other route to ensure that while schools have clear strategic direction, they also have the autonomy to respond to local needs, an autonomy which might well attract into headship a new generation of committed and humane school leaders?
• Alex Wood, headteacher of Wester Hailes Education Centre in Edinburgh, is currently seconded as headteacher to the city’s Tynecastle High School
The above article was first published in SecEd on 28 August 2008

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