More than 100 participants from Scotland, Ireland, Nigeria and the Netherlands attended the International Summer School on School Leadership in Edinburgh earlier this month.  Scottish headteacher Alex Wood was there.
 
 “Leadership is a measure of your engagement with the human condition.  It is knowing who you are in your particular school and understanding the consequences of your actions on your school.”
 
The words of Ewan Aitken, former Education Convenor of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, who introduced the ethical theme that echoed throughout the week-long International Summer School.
 
One-time teachers union leader and former council Chief Executive, Keir Bloomer, focussed on contemporary uncertainty.  “We live in a time of constant and ever-accelerating change.  Education systems face unprecedented challenges and experience great difficulty in keeping pace.”
 
His response was collegial leadership in which cooperative communities seek to sustain change and improvement.  Mr Bloomer controversially rejected smaller class sizes as a route to improved school performance, an assertion later challenged by Scotland’s new Cabinet Secretary for Education, Fiona Hyslop.
 
Professor Peter Gronn, of Glasgow University, explored distributed leadership taking up Bloomer’s theme that the increasing complexity of knowledge made the heroic leadership paradigm redundant.
 
While supportive of a distributive leadership model in which the traditional division between leaders and followers was broken, Professor Gronn asked to what extent much of what was seen as leadership was in fact the functional task of coordination.
 
The development of the quality of  teaching to improve student learning was examined by Ellen Moir, of the New Teacher Centre at the University of California, Santa Cruz.
 
She rejected the focus in the US on test results at the expense of building the human capacity and strong inter-personal skills, to support young teachers through systematic mentoring and coaching.
 
Mike McCabe, South Ayrshire’s Director of Education, agreed that leadership was essentially about inter-personal, human skills, suggesting that ‘bravery, resilience and managing risk are the key attributes”.
 
He said, “If relationships matter, honest debate and creative turbulence are both inevitable and essential.  The people with the problem both are the problem and are the solution.’
 
He posed a hard question to educationalists, asking them to rank order as priorities for their schools, elf-esteem and self-discipline, high academic standards, happy, ambitious, caring pupils and citizens contributing positively to their communities.
The follow-up however was to question these as priorities for their own children and whether the two prioritised lists were congruent.
 
Professor Alma Harris, of Warwick University, addressed distributive leadership and school transformation, asking what kind of leadership secured systematic, sustained change in schools.
 
Leadership, she argued, boiled down to one thing – influence.  Thereafter the key was a transfer of power for a particular end or set of goals.  Her view of distributed leadership was not that vertical structures disappeared but that new horizontal, distributed leadership structures did not stand in contradistinction to the essential vertical structures.
 
She also argued that in a world of global networks hierarchical leadership models were inadequate and outdated.
 
Richard Holloway, retired Episcopal Bishop, urged educational leaders always to keep the end in sight and, where necessary adjusting the means to the end (rather the other way around) to take time for reflection, to know yourself, to avoid being seduced into conformity, and to work cooperatively.
 
A different slant was advanced by Judith McClure of  the Scottish Educational Leadership, Management and Administration Society and headteacher of St George’s School, Edinburgh, who suggested that too often “education passed on a tradition of learning but stifled creativity and individualism”.
 
She added, “We want our schools to be communities in which everyone is valued and children are encouraged to ask questions and be themselves”.
 
Practical leadership development among young people was illustrated by contributions from Columba 1400 which runs residential leadership courses.
 
Norman Drummond, Columba 1400’s founder and chairman, stated that real lasting change happens one on one, one by one and in partnerships, not through policies and procedures.
 
Two groups of school student graduates of Columba, from Cumnock Academy and Lossiemouth High School, spoke of their experiences, of their personal growth and of the ethical impacts on their school communities.
 
While cautioning that leadership is such a powerful image that it can almost seem to disparage management and against the ‘heroic and individualistic’ model, Graham Donaldson, Senior Chief Inspector in Scotland’s HMIe, warned that the ‘counter-concept of distributed leadership can also diffuse the responsibility for individual leadership’.
 
A different assault on the distributed leadership theories was delivered by Professor Patrick Duignan of the Australian Catholic University.
 
He fundamentally questioned the concept of distributed leadership, suggesting that the phrase itself might be a contradiction in terms.  Leadership was not merely about outcomes but about transforming human beings and developing their essential attributes, especially self-belief and confidence.
 
He argues that leadership was less about distributing something but rather was concerned with nurturing and building the capacity for leadership at all levels.
 
The International Summer School was a resounding success, demonstrating once again that Scotland is at the forefront of educational thinking and practice.
 
 
The above article was first published in SecEd on 30 August 2007.

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