Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

Copenhagen lures ESHA conference

Copenhagen map

Paul Logan sent this report from the ESHA conference on the lessons coming out of Finland, Denmark and other countries.

Copenhagen was the venue for this year's European Secondary Heads' Association (ESHA) conference on 'Conditions of Leadership'.

On the first day, delegates had the opportunity to visit several local schools. The newest of these reflect trends in UK new builds: high, wide, light public areas with lots of flexible spaces. Less familiar, perhaps, is a Nordic tendency to involve higher education in design and operation: some schools in Finland are actually run by their local universities. We learnt of places that take significant risks. One school has been deliberately designed to have less 'classroom' capacity than the total student population - a condition to stimulate imaginative leadership if ever there was one.

Back at the conference centre, Barbara Ischinger, director of education at the OECD, gave a fascinating presentation from which the UK emerged quite well in a number of respects. We are, for instance, one of only five countries in their latest study with established pre-service, induction and in-service programmes for school leaders. Nor does the fact that 61 per cent of our country's heads are over 50 pose quite as pressing a challenge as the equivalent 99 per cent figure in Korea.

Discussions between sessions revealed the diversity of leadership conditions around Europe. In Portugal, heads are elected by other teachers; in France, they are civil servants, deployed to wherever in the country there is a vacancy; in Denmark, a significant number of principals have non-teaching backgrounds. There was plenty to mull over during dinner on the first evening.

Day two offered a choice of nine workshops. Lars Qvortrup from Denmark reminded us that young teachers want and expect more leadership than some of their established colleagues. His exposition of 'contractual leadership' was compelling, and all the more convincing for being grounded in the reality of contemporary schools.

The same potent fusion of theory and practice shone through Stefan Braukmann's presentation of findings from the LISA project (Leadership Impact on Students' Achievements). Stefan's explanation of the crucial but indirect impact of school leadership on student outcomes, and of how leaders' perceptions of their schools' context actually change that context, should be required listening everywhere.

Further up-beat presentations followed. According to a Finnish colleague, Danish humour tends to be sharp in more ways than one, and this was evident in Peter Lund Madsen's hilarious reflections on the kind of brain good school leaders need, and again in the cabaret at the colourful conference dinner in the Tivoli Gardens that night.

Perhaps inevitably, it was to Finland that we turned on the final morning of the conference. The achievements of their state education system are impressive by any standards, and all without the benefits of inspection, national tests or league tables.

Jouni Valijarvi's meticulous and modest analysis of the Finnish system was absorbing - though it is interesting to discover that even here, pressure from parents and politicians to import some elements of our own national system is mounting.

I took away from this event some powerful messages about high quality research, leadership profiles, and the need to stay connected beyond our national confines.

  • The 2010 ESHA conference is to be held in Cyprus with the theme 'Learning to Love Life'

Paul Logan is head of Finham Park School in Coventry

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