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Education Really Matters: Leadership in Education

Purposeful leadership at all levels is very important within learning communities. Authentic trailblazers seek to uphold exemplary values and to share them with warmth and integrity.

Frank O’Hagan

Why is leadership in learning communities so important?

Despite conflicting views on the characteristics of effective leadership, it is a topic which cannot be ignored. Much depends on the personal, philosophical and ethical qualities of those who are charged with providing authentic advice and guidance. Deliberations also should focus on the framework in which they operate and undertake their responsibilities, with associated procedures and outcomes requiring to be kept under constant review. Given the countless on-going developments in practices, it is pertinent to take a systematic look at what stewardship in all aspects should entail.

Depending on the context, terms used in job descriptions such as leader, manager, chief education officer or director can be interpreted in differing ways. Regardless of positions or power, those concerned might be judged by their subordinates and others to be ‘enthusiastic’ or ‘pessimistic’, ‘helpful’ or ‘dispiriting’, ‘brilliant’ or even ‘downright evil’! There are numerous examples of inspiring leaders delivering improvements which result in happy, energetic environments. It is always gratifying to listen to cheerful narratives of this kind. Unfortunately, the deleterious ramifications arising from management which has malfunctioned are evident in many contemporary educational bodies. Very high standards may be expected but, like business and politics, education is strewn with administrators who have been catastrophic failures, bankrupt of constructive ideas.

The features underlying good governance require positive responses to certain key questions. Do managerial structures promote equity, inclusiveness, respect and confidence among all participants? Have leadership roles been shared or are they tightly controlled by a small faction? Is there an undoubted awareness of and attention to the needs, views and aspirations of students, staff, parents, guardians and the local area? Has collective trust been established and enhanced? Is there a willingness to acknowledge mistakes, learn from them and make the necessary adjustments and advances?

When things might go astray

Progressive regulations enable working conditions and the pursuit of knowledge to be pleasurable and fruitful; the converse often results in stress, personal harm and the undermining of the growth of a vibrant culture. On occasions, inadequate conduct of affairs can be characterised by a toxic mix of attributes which indicate that executives who perform more poorly than others are likely to be the weakest at estimating their own abilities (sometimes referred to as a Dunning-Kruger type effect). Without doubt, some in positions of authority who are incompetent are also too inept to realise that this is the case.

There are various ways in which policymaking styles can produce umbrage among a workforce. For example, autocratic headteachers can be gruff and abrasive with insufficient patience to consider sensible or useful suggestions from within their organisations. Indeed, cases of ‘macho-management’ can provide notable illustrations of how to lose good staff!  In contrast, there is what might be described as the laissez-faire administrator who takes a distant, hands-off approach leaving others to take on responsibility and, of course, the blame when events go askew. Charisma can certainly be an advantage but the charismatic leader may lack a value-based stance and can be regarded by staff as a charlatan if the initial alluring appeal falls short in delivering worthwhile outcomes. Yet another exemplar – the ‘invisible boss’ – relates to heads who confine themselves to their own offices or who are frequently away from their workplaces. It is particularly ironic for abandoned colleagues if, in their view, the reason for repeated absences is to attend self-development sessions in the quest for further promotion! Small wonder if such a lack of engagement leads to failures in acquiring a genuine grasp of the real hassles or devious and subtle subplots at play under their radar. Neglect of duty breeds resentment.

Much more than interviews required before permanent appointments

It may appear surprising that many education officers and heads of educational establishments, despite having been viewed in previous posts as talented high flyers, fail to achieve success in new settings. It could that they conveyed a very good impression at interview (‘talking the talk’) but had not been adept at making headway in ‘real-life’ circumstances (‘unable to the walk’). If decisions are based mostly on performance during interviews, there is the possibility that those who have been appointed may have unintentionally misled their employers with false promises. After taking up their posts, they were not up to scratch in accomplishing commitments. Alternatively, they may have found themselves unexpectedly in an organisation with downcast and disheartened senior support staff. A debilitating culture prevailed and they did not possess the requisite drive and management skills to establish effective working relationships. Every derailment has its own story to tell.

There needs to be a reliable arrangement which guarantees robust and evidence-based reasons behind key appointments. These could be based on: careful scrutiny of personal and social qualities, such as in teamwork; proven achievements in previous positions of responsibility; and professional attributes relating to creativity, problem-solving, innovative practices and evaluation procedures. The decisive factor for confirming that the correct personnel have been selected begins with the appointees fully embracing their responsibilities and embarking on an improvement trajectory. They need to establish clearly that their priorities, judgements and implementation methods result in demonstrable progress for all concerned. On occasions, there will be justifiable reasons for tenures to be of a temporary nature until it is definite that selections are appropriate. At the same time, in order to be fair to them and with their wellbeing in mind, there also should be routes to allow them to return to previous posts in which they were proficient and comfortable.

Facing up to challenges

It is misleading to perceive learning communities as homogenous entities or to evaluate their ethos simply through public statements made by their promoted staff. Their administration and structures, particularly in the larger ones, are generally complex. Additionally, guidelines, customs and traditions can be preset and inflexible. Recognising the intricacy and actuality of any establishment’s multifaceted nature provides a frank and straightforward basis on which to construct advancement and growth. There may well be individuals, groups or departments which are resistant or antagonistic towards change and prefer to remain within the limitations of their comfort zones. Such circumstances need to be addressed openly and agreements reached on how best to take processes forward in a strategic and purposeful fashion.

When an organisation begins to function poorly there is often a constellation of adverse factors leading predictably to the breakdown of everyday routines.  A specific responsibility of leadership during periods of adjustment is to focus on the overall welfare of students and staff. Regrettably, some senior managers have yet to realise that stress and tensions frequently arise from institutional factors, such as poor communication or inadequate guidance. Instead, in their mindsets, stress is regularly associated with personal defects related to designated tasks with the culpability lying squarely with the individual. However, very good teachers can be subject to anxiety through no fault of their own. Skilled and compassionate supervisory styles identify and address the true causes of unnecessary strains and pressures. They take steps to prevent employee burnout, promote wellbeing and ensure that support is given when it is needed. Such managers, at all levels, spend time and engage with others in finding solutions. They also are competent at reframing the sources of stress into a series of reasonable challenges which are acceptable to those encountering difficulties.

Towards a collegiate approach

The traits of those in power comprise a spectrum from hubris to humility. However, there is a strong case for maintaining that modesty prevails over arrogance in terms of desirability and long-term effectiveness. The qualities of self-effacement, honesty and compassion in leadership, though undervalued in practice, are often those which are remembered most fondly about our former bosses. It is unfortunate that some leaders who take up their new posts are full of the own self-worth and, on appointment, are needlessly too critical of the organisation over which they now wish to impose their control. They take pleasure in scoring easy points at the expense of previous administrations. Initially, their edicts may be greeted with guarded enthusiasm due to assurances of better times ahead. However, their over-confidence and disregard for the views of staff can be increasingly upsetting and gradually their influence wanes. Too much domination and insufficient partnership make an ill-starred combination.

Beware of the headteacher or principal who goes on about ‘my school’ or ‘my college’ rather ‘our school’ or ‘our college’. There may be not only be a profusion of ‘’my’ and ‘I’ in conversations but a lack of connectedness with others. Public pronouncements begin to resemble fake news with the sole aim of impressing their targeted audiences. To the onlooker, such forms of egocentric or hierarchical leadership can convey a sense of vanity and self-importance but might also indicate deeper problems. Sadly, behind masks of poise, assertion and egotism, there can lie feelings of insecurity and melancholy. In matters of leadership there is much room for a whole-hearted emphasis on collective and collaborative involvement in decision-making, with ‘we’ replacing ‘I’ on most occasions!

Education needs leadership at every level to provide responsible and efficient choices along with a value-based vision regarding confronting setbacks and bringing improvements into operation. Acting with honesty, fairness and integrity and relating with learners and colleagues in a principled manner form the foundation for thriving and harmonious working partnerships. A crucial quality during a time of transition is the promotion of a genuine sense of attachment and belonging throughout the entire learning environment. This upbeat outlook directly influences attendance, behaviour and achievement among students and for staff it enhances commitment to agreed aims, targets and policies. It acknowledges that, within and across groupings, shared leadership can be learned and nourished.

How educational communities and campuses benefit

There is a general acknowledgement that managers in education should be monitored and their decisions open to scrutiny and evaluation by independent observers. However, it is important to ensure that this viewpoint does not place exclusive attention on the expertise and impact of one person or of only promoted staff. The nature of modern systems demands the recognition that, if a campus is to become and remain successful, it will require a collective effort. What is needed is an unpretentious and integrated support network which entails staff accepting their professional responsibilities as executives concerning their own remits. Well-coordinated teamwork rather than autocratic control offers an alternative way of promoting both solidarity and accomplishments. Enlightened contemporary practices highlight the value of an all-encompassing collegiate modus which views stakeholders – including children, adolescents, parents and guardians – as having diverse leadership roles. This perspective enables everyone to contribute to generating and attaining truly flourishing and inclusive objectives.

Confident organisers do not blur the realities of their responsibilities or cause confusion through conveying ambiguous notions of how they wish to go forward. They are not afraid to communicate clearly and to ‘give away’ or ‘grow’ leadership skills. Not only do they share their ideas with others but also and, perhaps even more importantly, they create a climate in which alternative views and suggestions can be aired and debated. These traits are among the most distinguishing attributes of high quality administration. Allowing – indeed encouraging – pupils, guardians and staff to contribute can present headships with challenges. However, listening to the ideas and suggestions of others should enhance ownership within designated sectors. It also can augment opportunities for creative thinking, problem-solving and evidence-based advances. The sincere cultivation of managerial roles and acceptance with regard to joint implementation of related responsibilities nurture and strengthen mutual interests within a cohesive group. In turn, enthusiasm and resilience are promoted among all involved and energise them in overcoming barriers to progress.

Concluding comments

Good management is characterised by the use of thoughtful schemes which are:

  • candid and easily understood – as opposed to bureaucratic and confusing
  • achievable – distinct from multi-layered and overwhelming
  • open and accessible – unlike restricted or unavailable
  • empowering for everyone – in contrast to giving rise to feeling unimportant or afraid of being regarded as a failure.

This stance yields ideas which display respect for diversity and promote inclusiveness. Without exception, members of the learning community are encouraged to perceive themselves as agents of positive change. Well-judged initiatives guarantee that there is a pragmatic improvement plan which originates from an objective analysis of existing strengths and weaknesses and results in clarity of aims, appropriate short- and long-term targets, and forward-looking strategies for promoting motivation, scholarship and health. What is sometimes labelled in current jargon as a ‘vision statement’ should clearly summarise the aspirations of all, including parents and guardians.

Authentic trailblazers seek to uphold exemplary values and to share them with integrity and warmth. In doing so, they heartily sustain and reinforce high standards. Additionally, by presenting opportunities for the further development of expertise in leadership, they contribute to the collective capital wealth and wellbeing. Promoted staff have key roles to undertake within this process by ensuring that all stakeholders are valued and feel confident that they can carry out their obligations and assignments successfully.

In summary, purposeful leadership ensures the enhancement of professional satisfaction among everybody with accountability for delivering a meaningful curriculum. Simultaneously, it focuses on a united, communal approach towards establishing features related to personal worth. These include agency, self-belief, relevant attainments and achievements, life skills and emotional resilience among students of all abilities. Within a dynamic and cooperative ethos, staff have autonomy and conviction while undertaking their duties; students embrace and enjoy their studies and acquire pertinent competences. Ultimately, the essential qualities of a motivated and inspiring milieu must be that affirmative aspirations and activities are to be found at all levels of engagement within a secure, pleasant and civilised learning culture.  

(Dr Frank O’Hagan previously was the Adviser of Studies to Bachelor of Education students at the University of Strathclyde. Later, he was a member of Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Education.)

The efficient usage of new technologies opens up worthwhile challenges for imaginative leaders to extend educational opportunities for learners for all abilities.

By O'Hagan

Dr Frank O'Hagan has formerly worked as a science and mathematics teacher, social welfare officer, teacher education lecturer, university lecturer and inspector of educational establishments. Now retired, he continues to have a keen interest in education and provision for carers.