John West-Burnham

Educational Leadership Development

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Reframing school and community leadership

The need for a radical rethink of our prevailing models of educational leadership can be best explained by reference to the turbulent environment in which education, like all parts of the public sector, is currently operating. That turbulence is, of itself, significant and a major factor in rethinking and redefining how we might conceptualise leadership.

Even the most cursory exercise in environmental mapping points to some fundamental challenges to the prevailing orthodoxies surrounding educational leadership. Those orthodoxies might include:

  • Leadership, which is essentially hierarchical in nature – however much this might be mitigated by effective relationships and distributed structures, schools remain essentially hierarchical.
  • The very direct personal accountability of headteachers.
  • The autonomy of most schools in terms of leadership and governance.
  • The development of school structures and processes based on generic organisational theory.
  • The lack of agreement around the core purpose of education.

All of this takes place within a policy context of disjointed incrementalism in terms of national and local policymaking and the lack of a definitive and authoritative professional consensus as to the core of professional practice. There is also a possible issue in that the school system is in some respects a microcosm of society at large and is therefore reflects (and possibly perpetuates) a highly polarized society which reflects institutionalised advantage and influence. Many of these issues are true of most education systems in advanced societies – the school is a microcosm of society.

Even more fundamental changes in education seem to be emerging from the neo-liberal agenda when applied to education. The deregulation of educational provision, the creation of competition based around an educational market, the privatization of the state sector and a culture of laissez-faire all point to a very different environment for leadership. In many ways the English education system might be characterised as ‘tight-loose’. Issues such as accountability are very tight in terms of central control. Ministers are committed to giving schools more freedom from "unnecessary prescription and bureaucracy"

Even more fundamental changes in education seem to be emerging from the neo-liberal agenda when applied to education. The deregulation of educational provision, the creation of competition based around an educational market, the privatization of the state sector and a culture of laissez-faire all point to a very different environment for leadership. In many ways the English education system might be characterised as ‘tight-loose’. Issues such as accountability are very tight in terms of central control. Ministers are committed to giving schools more freedom from “unnecessary prescription and bureaucracy” (e.g. 600 pages of guidance on discipline reduced to 52) and the School Self Evaluation Form scrapped from September 2011.Other aspects e.g. the curriculum are relatively loose apart from an ‘unremitting focus on the basics’.

“The new National Curriculum is an exercise in intellectual liberation, not an attempt to prescribe every moment of the school day. We must revive a crucial distinction between the National Curriculum and the School Curriculum. The purpose of the National Curriculum is to set out the essential knowledge that children need to advance in core subjects. We then want to liberate teachers to decide on pedagogy - how those core subjects should be taught - and also to decide on what other subjects, or activities, should make up the whole school curriculum.” M Gove July 2011

 

A source very close to the education secretary said “ Our goals are to replace existing GCSEs in English maths and science with substantially more demanding ones, and take Whitehall almost totally out of everything else to do with the secondary curriculum and exam system.” (TES 29.6.2012)

The introduction of Free Schools gives consumers not only increased choice by certain criteria but also the power to actually become a significant force within the system. It’s not so different to the situation where your local supermarket fails to meet your needs and so the government gives you the money to open up in competition.

Therefore it may be that in order to rethink school leadership it may be necessary to question certain basic assumptions about the nature of schools and schooling:

  • Are leadership and governance appropriate to a new policy environment?
  • Why do we continue to reify the position of headteacher?
  • How ready are schools to compete?
  • Why are most schools closed for over 80% of the year?
  • Why is the totally artificial process of transfer from primary to secondary at the age of 11 still the norm?
  • How client centred are schools?
  • Why are many schools still an island “Entire of itself’?
  • Why are schools designed around the curriculum rather than learning?

These questions obviously mask fundamental issues that are deeply embedded in social norms and cultural expectations but they need to be addressed as part of the process of rethinking educational leadership. A more pragmatic view of the issues questioning prevailing models of leadership might result in the following ‘map’ of the context for leadership:

 

 

Fig. 1 The context of leadership

 

The implications of each of the elements in the diagram might be best understood in the following terms:

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