Snake oil and ladders – reflections on brainstrust 2 by Alex Wood

Our recent brainstrust seminar at City of Glasgow College in June prompted Alex Wood into some thinking about leadership, imrovement, beareacracy and accountability. He shared this article with us which was first publisghed in TESS. Many thanks, Alex ……alex woodThe assumption is often made that good schools always have good leaders and poor leaders always create poor schools. A recent seminar in Glasgow addressed the issue, asking what leadership is and how we can ensure good leadership.
Former headteacher Danny Murphy insisted that leadership had been too readily separated from management, which was viewed as boring and technical. But leadership and management are intimately connected. Sue Beattie, headteacher of Belmont Academy in Ayr, stated that the quality of leadership in Scottish schools could be a lottery, determined by circumstances beyond a leader’s control.
Certainly, there is huge variation in the quality of professional review across the country, with many teachers sceptical about the support they receive. Too often it’s a tick-box procedure, rather than support for reflective practice. Professional Update, the new approach from the General Teaching Council for Scotland, should improve CPD, but the whole process appears to dodge the issue of competence.
Again, there is huge variation in CPD provision between local authorities. Professional development cannot be delivered on the cheap, especially if the goal is effective leadership. Recruitment and selection procedures also vary from authority to authority, from the exceptionally poor to the highly demanding, with pupil involvement and rigorous screening. There is also, however, reluctance among many teachers to apply for leadership posts.
Walter Humes, visiting professor of education at the University of Stirling, suggested at the seminar that much of the agonising about leadership in recent years had been “unproductive and unhelpful”. Mind-numbingly dull academic contributions to debates about leadership, he suggested, had only added to the confusion – as well as leadership gurus’ ability to sell their snake oil without challenge.
So what, then, is good leadership? Professor Humes expressed it as: “Recognised expertise demonstrated by example, rather than exhortation; a clear sense of purpose; fairness in the treatment of staff; support for colleagues in times of difficulty; praise for good performance; a willingness to address hard issues and listen to critics; and openness to new thinking.”
He suggested that the current emphasis on leadership was partly to shift focus away from issues of policy and resource: “By devolving responsibility on to headteachers and schools, and tying them to a tight agenda of ‘improvement’ – defined narrowly in terms of exam passes – the scene is set for attributing blame when things go wrong. But although responsibility is devolved, power remains not on the front line of service provision but in the back rooms of the educational bureaucracies.”
That’s a perspective many teachers, including committed school leaders, would share.
The above article was published in the Times Educational Supplement Scotland on 1 August 2014:

Walter Humes on Leadership – brainstrust2

Challenging the Discourse of Leadership

Walter Humes

I should admit right away that I am something of a sceptic on the subject of leadership. By that I don’t mean that I think leadership is unimportant but I do think much of the agonising about it in recent years has been unproductive and unhelpful.

Leadership Courses

Consider the record. We have had the SQH – which critics regard as too academic and not sufficiently geared to practice. We have had the flexible route to headship – which has been criticised as insufficiently demanding and lacking in intellectual rigour. We have had Columba 1400 which those who have attended enthuse about but the firm evidence of its institutional – as distinct from its personal – benefits is hard to find. Mind you, I can think of a number of people in Scottish education I would happily send on a course which included white water rafting and free fall parachuting.

We have also had Glasgow City Council developing its own Aspiring Heads programme. The rationale for this programme sounds reasonable – the city’s educational challenges are different in nature and scale from other parts of the country and require tailored leadership training. An alternative interpretation is that senior officials in Glasgow are suspicious about allowing an external perspective which might introduce new ways of thinking and acting that might disturb their assumptions. In a recent evaluation of the different programmes providers were asked to identify the strengths and limitations of their current provision. On limitations, the response from Glasgow was ‘No obvious weaknesses – the Council would address them if there were’. This suggests a disturbingly complacent attitude.

GTCS + Donaldson

In addition to all this there has been the development of the GTCS Standards: Standards for Registration (including provisional and full registration); Standards for Career-Long Professional Learning; Standards for Leadership and Management. These include recommendations for encouraging leadership development at various stages of a teacher’s career and for the promotion of distributed leadership. This is consistent with some of the key recommendations in the Donaldson Report which sees good leadership as essential to the production of a teaching force fit for the 21st century.

Academic Contributions

As if all this wasn’t enough there have been hundreds of mind-numbingly dull academic contributions to debates about leadership. I should confess that I have contributed to some of these. And what has been the result of all this effort? Here’s what two of the leading experts have said. Peter Gronn has written that ‘a significant amount of the field’s understanding of leadership is grounded in highly dubious and problematic assumptions’. And John Macbeath, referring specifically to distributed leadership, has described it as ‘a contested concept embracing a wide range of understandings and often bearing little apparent relationship to what happens in schools and classrooms’.

Leadership Gurus

This confusion has left the way open for so-called leadership gurus who claim to be able to transform jaded individuals and institutions into energised, upbeat agents of renewal. All for a fat fee, of course, and there is no shortage of takers. Some of these gurus advertise themselves as consultants – I always think it is no accident that the word ‘consultant’ begins with a ‘con’.

My Own Position

What about my own view of leadership? It comes in a variety of forms, often linked to the particular personalities of those exercising it. I have known and worked with strong, flamboyant leaders, quietly efficient leaders, leaders who had good ideas but depended on others to carry them through, leaders who were good with people and very much ‘hands on’ but who were less good with paperwork and bureaucracy. I have known leaders who were skilful diplomats and able to negotiate successfully with the bureaucracy. I have known fewer leaders than I would have liked who were prepared to challenge officialdom and willing to say no if they thought they were justified in doing so.But although effective leadership can take many forms there are certain basic principles which can be identified. They do not call for rocket science and can be stated quite simply in common sense terms: recognised expertise demonstrated by example rather than exhortation; a clear sense of purpose; fairness in the treatment of staff; support for colleagues in times of difficulty; praise for good performance; a willingness to address hard
issues and listen to critics; openness to new thinking.

The Importance of Context

The actual embodiment of these principles will depend to a large extent on particular contexts. Government attempts to make everything conform to a single corporate image are likely to fail and should be resisted. We have here one of the central contradictions of Scottish education. The new curriculum for excellence is intended to produce pupils who are flexible learners and can think for themselves. It is claimed that the approach to teacher education recommended in the Donaldson report will encourage more independent thinking. But talk to teachers and you find that their experience is that independent
thinking is fine in theory but not welcome in practice: it is certainly not appreciated by local authorities, by the SQA or by the inspectorate. There is a fair amount of bad faith in the official discourse of Scottish education and that includes the discourse surrounding leadership.

Responsibility Without Power

Let me end by suggesting a rather sinister motive behind the current emphasis on leadership. It seems to me it is, in part at least, a diversionary tactic designed to shift the focus away from issues of policy and resources. By devolving responsibility onto head teachers and schools, and tying them to a tight agenda of ‘improvement’ – defined narrowly in terms of exam passes – the scene is set for attributing blame when things go wrong. But although responsibility is devolved, power is not. Power remains not on the front line of service provision but in the back rooms of the educational bureaucracies, in the inner
circles of the policy communities which continue to be managed by a system of patronage, a system that benefits those who know how to play the political game. The discourse of leadership deserves to be subject to sharp, critical interrogation.

Brainstrust2: the panel speakers on current leadership strategies

Margaret Alcorn introduces the panel and the first speaker, Marjory McMahon

Sue Beattie on her experience of leadership:

Rodger Hill on challenges, concerns and his online development programme

Danny Murphy’s contribution

#brainstrust2 tomorrow – will our current leadership strategies deliver?

BT2 panel

The waiting is nearly over for our next “brainstrust” quick and dirty pop-up event in Glasgow College. In keeping with the SELMAS philosophy of providing a platform for mature and open conversations about education and leadership, the brainstrust events focus on a theme, document, or idea which is current or emerging and affords a safe environment for the conversations about it to take place.

Follow the event on twitter – #brainstrust2

Because SELMAS is an independent organisation run by volunteers we can respond quickly to events, as long as we have the capacity to do so. This second brainstrust event has been made possible by the generosity of our friends in Glasgow College, who have kindly opened up their premises to us. Please take the time to check out a forthcoming event they are organising of their own – the One City event. They’re still looking for some facilitators for the CPD sessions running as part of this event so get in touch with Martin Taylor, Organisational Development Manager if you’d like to be involved.

#Brainstrust2…… Improving School Leadership: Can our current strategies deliver?

Improving School Leadership: Can our current strategies deliver? June 3rd 5.00 – 6.30pm.

City of Glasgow College, City Campus North Hanover Street, 60 North Hanover Street, Glasgow
Brainst trust2

Plans for the Scottish College for Educational Leadership are now advancing and a new CEO will be appointed soon. Join us for an open discussion on all aspects of educational leadership and on whether SCEL and other current leadership development strategies will deliver their stated objectives.

Margaret Alcorn (Convenor of SELMAS) will host the event and chair the discussion. Our panelist are: Margery McMahon, Lead National Co-ordinator for SCEL; Walter Humes, academic and journalist, currently Visiting Professor of Education at the University of Stirling and a regular contributor to the online journal Scottish Review; Danny Murphy, Senior Teaching Fellow at the University of Edinburgh; Rodger Hill, Education Officer, Dumfries & Galloway, with responsibility for leadership development and secondary staffing issues and Sue Beattie, , who is currently Head Teacher at Belmont Academy,
Sue has a passionate interest in building leadership capacity and ensuring high quality CPD for staff. She has been actively involved in projects with Tapestry, SELMAS and SCSSA with a focus on all aspects of leadership.

This will be a free event but, to ensure that we can match numbers, accomodation and catering, please let Alex Wood know if you intend attending by emailing him the completed booking form below. SELMAS looks forward to a great discussion and welcoming our many west of Scotland members to our first recent event in Glasgow.
booking-pro-forma BT2

We are grateful to Glasgow College for hosting this event. SELMAS gratefully acknowledges a grant from the Scottish Government in support of leadership development work in Scottish education.