Review: ‘Professional School Leadership: Dealing with Dilemmas’ by Danny Murphy, Dunedin 2013

dilemmas-cover-2nd-editionReview by Neil Craik-Collins
It was Danny Murphy who introduced me to the refreshing freedom of a Walter Humes presentation. Walter basked in the glory of retirement and promised to tell us the truth that most mortal practitioners would never be able to utter in public for fear of the managerial ‘big stick’ in the sky. Danny has written this second edition in a similar tone.
He gives us an unfiltered insight into the dilemmas of educational leadership and management, with uncompromising honesty, based on his own experience and wisdom of the job. Danny has a knack of getting to the epicentre of the issue and with such a problematic topic, his clarity of purpose is impressive. This book is the evidence that he has clearly been listening to the myriad of influential voices and opinions around him.

If the first edition was the metaphorical spine of educational dilemma, this second edition brings the flesh of the latest educational research and context. The references are relevant to the current context of education in Scotland and the UK. This includes perspectives of PISA 2013 and the recommendations of Graham Donaldson (2011).

Danny challenges managerialism and political defences of failing policy in favour of meeting the needs of children. He uses the work of Barker (2010) and Mulford et al (2004) to highlight the limited impact that school leaders can have on academic achievement because external factors. He questions the purpose of education, the dangers of unintelligent accountability (Macbeath, 2012) and the stresses the importance of open and honest engagement with the community.  These are key questions that will have to be faced if Scottish education is to follow the perceived excellence of other systems such as Finland, Canada and Australia. This quest for transparency and collaborative dialogue also fits with the ethos of the SELMAS organisation.

Danny defines Leadership as not being ‘a quality of individuals, but instead a distributed, shared dynamic of relationships and interactions leading towards a desired set of shared goals’. In the current climate of Scottish education one of these goals would appear to be getting everyone involved to accept their leadership responsibility. Indeed, speaking at St George’s School for girls last year Graham Donaldson suggested that if this was not the case, there would’ve no future for the profession.

Danny suggests that excellent school leaders have to be highly skilled communicators who have the ability to take risks and make bold decisions. He also expresses his frustration at a system that prevents educators from doing exactly this. Again this connects with the current discussions around the findings of the Commission for School Reform and hierarchy. Are we training leaders who are expected to put their children and communities first and can this form of development be compatible with the political needs of Governments and employers? Perhaps all that is required are good managers who effectively implement policy? He also questions whether there are such entities as ‘failing schools’ and whether politics is a compatible bedfellow for effective transformational change. He questions whether there is a ‘moral vacuum at the centre of leadership’ and whether an ethical framework would clarify expectations. The vignettes place you in the unenviable position of the school leader and force you to consider the best, but imperfect, course of action.

The book ends with a very useful and extended toolkit that can be applied to the critical incidents we face on a daily basis. I would suggest that you should place this edition in a box entitled ‘in the case of a dilemma, please break the glass. Don’t buy the glass though, because I would suggest that this would be an improper investment of resources in a time of austerity.

Follow Danny’s blog here

2 thoughts on “Review: ‘Professional School Leadership: Dealing with Dilemmas’ by Danny Murphy, Dunedin 2013

  1. Thanks Neil.
    Ref Barker and Mulford, the effect on attainment is indirect. However I wouldn’t like anyone to believe that I am arguing that educational leaders are ineffective. We affect people in our educational community every day, not least by who we are and how we deal with people and with the systems that govern our community life together. Lots of things we do have significant effects on lives and choices and on the character of the human community we work in. In relation to the more limited issue of impact on attainment, this is harder to untangle and will vary by school, according to a wide variety of factors.

    • Danny- I think it was Macbeath and Mortimore that suggested something similar about the social effects of poverty upon learning. Some pupils are not in the correct emotional state to engage ( Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs) I also recognise that other authors refute this and lay all underperformance at the gates of ‘failing’ schools. I hope I didn’t give the impression that I think that you believe that leadership is ineffective and futile. Well trained, knowledgeable, emotionally intelligent leadership is vital. However, there is an assumption, portrayed commonly in the media, that high achievement can be attributed to ‘good’ schools and other establishments, lower down the league tables, are poorly led. This also opens the debate around performance related pay. Like you say, impact is very difficult to attribute. Children do not spend the majority of their lives at school and of course excellent teaching is their absolute right. Having read Gladwell’s ‘Outliers’ this summer, I was very interested in the idea of KIPP schools. At this point I’ll pipe down and let others continue the debate. I hope this clarifies.

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