Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

Bright'n breezy does it

Comparing notes

Leadership, and in some cases lack of it, seemed to be the recurrent theme at the SHA annual conference in Brighton on 4-6 March.

In his opening conference speech, SHA President Tim Andrew talked about the mavericks and eccentrics who make some of the best leaders but who don't fit the mould of the National Standards for Headteachers.

Ruth Kelly, leader of the country's education service, disappointed the 450 delegates with her reluctance to have a real debate about the issues facing their schools.

And SHA's stalwart leader, John Dunford, was noticeably absent, having been laid low with a nasty virus. But in the spirit of distributed leadership, Deputy General Secretary Martin Ward was more than capable of filling his shoes.

In his speech Leading Learning, Tim Andrew asked how far we have moved on from Frank Musgrave's 1971 description of leaders: "The good leader is aloof and gives praise sparingly...He sets difficult goals, which are constantly revised and insists on their attainment. He accepts the hatred of his subordinates as inevitable."

Tim following the quote by saying: "We may have abandoned the autocrat, possibly, but too many people - including our political masters and mistresses - still seem to believe in the heroic leader."

Society is changing rapidly, he said, and so must education. However, he feared we were moving backward, not forward, in closing the gap between the haves and have-nots, in part due to the focus on grant-maintained and specialist status.

As an example, he said, "when selectively breeding roses, you throw the rejects on the bonfire. Parents do not want their children to attend a school that is being selected out. And we know exactly what kind of challenge is often faced by those schools.

"What happens to the schools that cannot or do not want to become specialist?"

Referring to debate leading up to the general election, he said that the country needs longer term thinking on the part of government if schools are really to meet the challenges of the future.

Ruth Kelly, unfortunately, declined to address that point during her speech to delegates. She acknowledged that some educators would have preferred Tomlinson's overarching diploma.

However, she added, "My decision was for a different approach that retained tried and trusted GCSE and A levels...I will not dwell here on the reasons." And she did not.

She went on to say that she believed SHA agreed with her on those things that were most important - how students should learn and be taught.

During the question and answer session following, delegates explained to the secretary of state the points of disagreement. These included the white paper, inadequate funding for new initiatives, parents' responsibilities as well as rights, and the growing workload on senior managers.

David Peck expressed the view of many delegates by saying he felt "frankly patronised" by some of the remarks in the speech.

However, contrary to front page headlines, Ms Kelly was not jeered by the crowd and there were no shouted exchanges, although some delegates might confess to some whispered remarks and 'low-level disruption'.

Greg Dyke had a much warmer reception on Saturday as he recounted the issues he faced leading the BBC. When he was asked to leave, thousands of employees protested in the streets - much different than the "climate of fear" he found when he first arrived.

Changing the culture depended on two things, he said. First was shifting the 'them and us' mentality between managers and staff and second was giving staff confidence and real power.

Not much different than what good leaders in schools do.

As a leader, there were several lessons he learned. First was to be yourself. Second was the absolute importance of two-way communication.

Third was, as a leader, to be honest with staff. Fourth, was to set the example and practise what you preach.

Finally, he said, as a leader you need to be able to convince staff that they are capable of achieving great things.

The same is true of working with students, said journalist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown as she addressed delegates that afternoon.

School leaders have a duty to push children outside of their comfort zone, even if that means challenging the views of their family and culture.

"We have to create young citizens who are better than we have been at empathising and connecting and dealing with people who are utterly unlike themselves," she said.

"It's easy to feel empathy for people in your own group, or community or family.

"Many of our policy makers seem to be imposing community or family or tribal allegiances instead of understanding that the challenge is how you deal fairly and equally and creatively with people with whom you have no natural allegiance at all.

She argued that by concentrating on targets and standards, government has missed the true challenge of a 21st century globalised society.

Standing in for John Dunford, Martin Ward agreed that the government has missed opportunities in the past five years.

He acknowledged that there has been much "good government"- policies that support and empower schools - but there is still too much bad government in the form of bureaucracy and conflicting messages.

"The school milk delivery may have been abolished by Margaret Thatcher, but the Whitehall milkman still delivers these policies, almost daily, on to the school doorstep," he said.

"Fortunately, most schools have had the good sense to ignore many of them and, like milk on the doorstep, if you leave it long enough, it eventually goes off."

However there are many issues schools cannot tackle on their own, and behaviour is a prime example. Martin called on government to signal support for schools, but he acknowledged that wider society must also take responsibility for promoting good discipline.

For example, the verbal abuse and foul language in football matches suggests to students that this is an acceptable way to behave in schools.

"Where is the moral authority of television companies in showing this to the nation? Not once but week after week, complete with action replays," said Martin.

"Such incidents should not be shown until after the 9pm watershed, and preferably not at all."

Such an off the cuff remark has never, in SHA's memory, generated so much media interest. Please rest assured SHA is not mounting a campaign to ban football, as some of the media would have suggested.

Behind the headlines of Ruth Kelly and football, there was serious discussion taking place throughout the three days in the dozens of seminar sessions.

In groups of 20 to 40, delegates had the chance to dig deeper into many of the issues and to take away useful ideas from other schools.

From ways to evaluate pupils' success, to dealing with behaviour, to issues facing independent schools, it was difficult to find time for a walk along the Brighton seafront.

But if anyone knows how to play hard as well as work hard, it's school leaders.

Above all the conference was an opportunity for school leaders to take time out to reflect on their school and their own professional development.

If you missed this year's conference, it's not too early to start thinking about next year - join us in Birmingham on 17-19 March 2006.

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