We have arrived at a worrying moment for the future of school leadership. Either we throw our lot behind a quasi-political, ideological regime more akin to a factory production line, or we grasp the nettle and remain true to the values and culture that has always made us the envy of the world. Yes, true British values, where invention, creativity, leadership and communication have served us so well down the years.
I am a believer in the leader as servant, promoting values-driven education. I believe that people, quality people, are behind the greatest educational advancements. I believe in ethical leadership, transparent and rooted in trust. I believe in long-termism, promoting strong leadership, enabling a learning community to thrive at all levels. I believe in the role of the wider community, a holistic vision, inclusive and integrated. I believe in early intervention that affects future life chances and assists social mobility.
Why does this vision of leadership matter so much as we enter 2017?
- Children’s identity is at risk. They feel less rooted in groups, communities and families. Of course, this is not just children but people in general. However, children are more vulnerable because they are less likely to grow up as part of a deep-rooted, extended family. Similarly, their involvement with groups, teams or clubs is often transient or more to do with parents’ proxy consumerism. Many sports teams outside of school are now elitist from an early age. Children are made to feel failures early in life and can lack confidence which becomes habitual.
- The lack of identity leads to increasing mental health problems. It is compounded by the rise of social media as the habitat of communications and friendships. The moral relativity of the 90s and 00ies means that discussing these problems has become normalised and displaced – it is something that can be dealt with by someone else. There is a worrying lack of resilience in young people, many of whom are now becoming the parents of the future.
- There is less trust within local communities, often for good reason (think expenses, abuse scandals, bankers’ behaviour and the ‘post-truth’ acceptance). Suspicion of everyone, especially authority is rife. Exclusion is more common than inclusion. We are therefore seeing more managers and bureaucrats in positions of authority, rather than leaders whose motives are more emotional and idealistic. It is impossible to deal with worries over child sexual exploitation, radicalisation, community cohesion, bullying etc without strong ethical leadership. Embracing ‘social capital’, defined by the OECD as “networks together with shared norms, values and understandings that facilitate co-operation within or among groups” is way down the priority list of civic leaders.
- Rates of childhood obesity, children assessed as having SEND and those whose behaviour gives cause for concern, are going up. Schools’ responsibilities to safeguard families have risen. Social care and social work has been hacked back to its absolute bare bone. At the same time, parenting is increasingly a concern. Youngsters aged 3 can be more attached to an Ipad than their own parents. The demise of local authorities is meaning that the 2014 SEND reforms, designed to improve the life chances of those with disabilities, have had minimal effect.
- Concerns about child radicalisation, online bullying/abuse, child exploitation, children missing in education are staple worries, and high profile within government. All of these are linked to the points above and can only be addressed by ethically-minded, strong leaders, not managers. Doing an hour’s Prevent Duty training will change little if leaders treat it as a box ticked.
- The fallout from Brexit means that there is a general consensus that immigration is a major problem and that multilateralism is wasteful. We face greater isolationism and working ‘in silos’. The learning of languages has once again been devalued. However, Britain is already a highly multi-cultural country and Brexiteers are unanimous is wanting to see Britain play a greater international role. Children need to be linked to the wider world more than ever.
- There is growing evidence of decreasing aspiration to educational leadership roles, especially in the faith sector. The Times on New Years Eve 2016 suggested that there may be up to 1000 vacancies during 2017.
- Evidence from a Harvard Business School study of UK headteachers suggests that a ‘surgeon’ model, based on ‘lean management’ principles has been trumpeted as the preferred style of leadership. The BBC ran this story in November 2016 linking ‘surgeon’ leaders to short-term outcomes, exclusion and no link to the communities served by the school. This style of leadership prioritises examination results above all else. It is doing nothing to address the previous seven points.
- We are in danger of seeing all educational value as lying within economic success. Teachers’ hours have rocketed over recent years because they are focused on administration and evidence gathering. Measures of accountability have become so complicated that schools are employing data managers in an effort to assist teachers with the huge workload. The focus is on preparing children for examinations or other assessments yet rarely on transformational learning work with pupils.
- There is a growing dearth of good teachers. Anecdotally, it would appear that those at the start of their careers are looking to the rest of the world for a possible escape, whilst those of the end of their careers are staggering towards a retirement. Not only do we risk a major shortfall in school leaders but we may do with classroom teachers
What I want to offer is an alternative vision for both leadership and also curriculum. It seeks to confront all the points listed above. It is not a political response nor stemming from any focus group or movement.
The key aim here is to get the right people leading the right curriculum in schools. The rest will follow.
The key areas are as follows:-
- Service learning: this concept has academic rigour largely in the USA where is has had some success but has attracted some criticism too. In the UK in 2017, it has the potential to address some of the issues related to community cohesion, child mental health and (crucially in my opinion) resilience. Its championing should not compromise the overall focus on basic skills in the classroom. But by placing community at the heart of a school’s work, the ethos and values of the school leader can make a huge difference to all those connections within a given community. This in turn can lead to long-term sustainability.
In primary schools, the key theatre for service learning would be regular activities and projects which build on the transferable skills of resilience, communication and independence. Examples might include the forest school movement, deeper partnerships with local sports clubs, international and cultural projects, theatre and music community partnerships and collaborations with charities.
- Early intervention: a ‘Children’s Centre’ in every school. (They may not be called this in the future so schools can name them how they please –they will be in charge now that local authorities are so skeletal).
School leaders can extend the work of the learning mentor and other staff into child and family health, diet, post-natal care, early family support, advice and support for parenting. This is not nanny Britain, nor moral relativity where everything elicits an arm round the shoulder and a ‘don’t worry we’ll sort it out for you.’ It’s more like a ‘booster jab’ – intensive support for a period of time. It also would seek to deal with correct assessment of SEND so that the correct school package is agreed early, preferably within the framework of a local collaborative of schools.
- Radical reduction in teachers’ administrative workload, coupled with an increase in their work within the community. Contracts would be renegotiated to ensure that knowledge and skills held by staff would be put to maximum effect with pupils and community. There would need to be a link to alternative outcomes to counter the current paper chase on progress and attainment in reading, writing and mathematics.
- Long-term commitment from senior staff leading to an incremental change/improvement model. One of the most important policies will be a succession plan. This includes governors. Performance management and monitoring systems are drastically altered to focus on alternative outcomes, not simply those resulting from one pupil test. Regular time is invested in teachers discussing and challenging each other over pedagogy and learning content.
- Pupils as critical communicators. They meet others, often in an inter-generational forum, debating and discussing. They look outwards. National and international links are long-term and deep. Pupils have excellent manners, are good listeners and can debate/explain themselves. The learning of foreign languages provides a framework for good spoken and written English.
- Reverse-inclusion. Schools are partnered with special schools both as a way of sharing good practice and procuring training, but also to partner in curriculum projects where outcomes are both ‘hard’ and ‘soft’. Staff skill in dealing with autism and other complex learning difficulties is enhanced tenfold. Children are brought up to value themselves for who they are, not what exam they pass or fail.
- Importance of parents: there is total transparency and involvement with trust an imperative. Together, staff and parents can deal with the benefits and drawbacks of social media and mobile devices. Cyber-bullying, exploitation and child mental health issues are rare because of the team approach. There is a sense of community where everyone sticks by each other because there is a shared set of values.
- Arts education is not just an entitlement but a curriculum driver for excellence and enjoyment. The school day is altered to ensure these opportunities are available before and after school as well as being central to the taught timetable. Partnerships with arts organisations course through the school’s offer to pupils.