Challenge, Morals & OfSTED: The Foundations of Leadership Session 1

Well, well, well. It’s been a long time since I last blogged! I must admit that I have about 5 half-written posts sitting in the background in draft form, but I’ve never finished them. Maybe I’ll get round to it some day.

Today I’ve had the perfect excuse to get back into blogging, which I have always found to be such a useful tool for reflection.  This afternoon I attended the first session of a leadership development course being run by the Learning Trust to which my school belongs.  Delivered by a former National College trainer, the course has been titled ‘The Foundations of Leadership’ and is aimed at middle leaders from both the primary and secondary schools in the local partnership, as well as from some other local schools.  Having attended a National College course a few years ago titled ‘Leading From The Classroom,’ I wasn’t sure whether I should expect the same content or whether it would be new, but the field of leadership is so vast that I feel it is almost impossible to have the same course content twice.

When I was at school myself, and particularly so at GCSE and A Level, I really enjoyed it because my thinking was constantly challenged.  Today my thinking has been challenged in so many ways.  In three hours this afternoon, I was able to reflect on my own leadership qualities and abilities, reflect on others’ leadership and learn some new theory about what it means to be a leader.  A lot of the new ways of thinking I have learned are, on the whole, common sense, however I feel that it takes some articulation and someone telling you things for them to become clear.

At the beginning of the session, we were asked why we were there.  For some, this was simply because they had been told by their Headteacher that they needed to go.  My response was: “I have been on a leadership development course before, but that was before I was a leader, so now I want to do it with a fresh set of eyes and with a fresh set of experiences.”  The course leader picked up on this straight away and showed how the nuances of language can give a lot away or show a lack of awareness of what it being discussed.  Have I always been a leader?  Now that I have the word ‘leader’ in my job title, does that make me more of a leader than I was before?  Is a leader someone with the word ‘leader’ in their job title, or is it something more inherent than that?  I must admit that although I have always had aspirations to be a leader and although I know I have many attributes demonstrated by leaders, I did not consider myself to be a leader until I was given the title by someone else.  This was the first point where my thinking was challenged.  Why wasn’t I a leader before?  My understanding of the meaning of the word ‘leader’ was flawed.  I can recognise that some of the children in my class are ‘natural leaders.’ They don’t have a job title that says this, however.  You don’t need the label ‘leader’ to make you a leader.  Equally, having the label ‘leader’ does not necessarily mean you are one.

Something that really resonated with me was the thought of educational leadership being much more complex than before.  This is something I had previously recognised, as leadership in education is not simply a case of those at the top dictating to those below them (unless, of course your job title is Secretary of State for Education, in which case you do just that from your ivory tower, much to the disdain of most of those on the front line).  These days, with a much greater focus on distributed leadership and with layers of leadership that include governors, senior leaders and middle leaders, school leaders are much more accountable than in previous generations, but also much more numerous.  This makes me so grateful for the opportunity to attend this course, so that I can learn about how to best approach my role, so that, ultimately, the children in school receive the best educational experiences possible, facilitated by well-trained and well-led staff.

This leads me nicely onto an observation I made about today’s session: there was very little mention of children.  I can’t decide if this is a positive or a negative.  On the one hand, educational leadership is about leading ideas, philosophies, change and every school’s biggest resource: its staff.  However, on the other hand, this leadership would not be necessary were it not for children, for whom we work very hard to ensure the best education possible.  After all, that’s why we do the job, isn’t it?

The morals of leadership was a major part of today’s session.  We were challenged to think about whether changing practice in order to meet the often arbitrary OfSTED criteria is good leadership.  The room was divided.  Personally I think that bowing to the dictates of Whitehall and their cronies is a display of poor leadership, as it demonstrates a lack of conviction and belief in ones own values.  However, I have seen and experienced first-hand the effect that an impending OfSTED inspection can have on school staff, but as well as that, I have seen the negative effect it can have on school leaders’ health and lives.  Rebelling against the system is not an option when a Lead Inspector is sitting across the desk from you, but a compromise is possible.  Is it more moral to compromise with some of the (often ridiculous) demands placed on schools by OfSTED, rather than abandon the ethos of a school to focus purely on subjects whose data is published nationally?  Most definitely!  I know that most school staff will know of a school somewhere near them that plays a very sly game and is pleased to be able to plaster ‘Outstanding’ on every available wall and letterhead, but if this has been earned in an immoral way, is the quality of the leadership truly outstanding?  Our children need a rounded, personalised education.  Inspection frameworks do not always appreciate this. It is school leaders’ job to ensure that children are well-educated in more than English and Maths.  I’m lucky to work in a school where this is the case.  Unfortunately I know of a few schools where this does not happen, and I know that I will never allow myself to be a leader in a school where a rounded education is not the expectation.

Going forward from here, my current pondering point is establishing what my own values are when it comes to education and educational leadership.  That’s something for another blog post, but it’s something that I will be thinking about very carefully over the coming days and weeks.

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