Educational Leadership: Dare to tweak!


Written by Matthew

The Oxford dictionary describes leadership “The action of leading a group of people or an organisation, or the ability to do this”.

This is a perfectly accurate although far too simplistic definition. A teacher developing leadership skills will be completely unable to use it to understand their own leadership. This is the starting point for an exploration of the more complex and nuanced analysis of leadership that teachers need to measure their performance against.

Lets start from the highest level definition; what do leaders do? The answer is that they make change happen. This has been true of every leader in every walk of life or work!

Political leaders

  • Mahatma Gandhi

Using his famous approach of non-violence he led India to independence from Great Britain. His campaign of peaceful protest and civil disobedience was hugely effective. The change he brought about was to ensure that colonial rule became untenable.

  • Winston Churchill

When Germany swept through Europe in the opening months of World War 2, Churchill simultaneously rallied the small group of allies against Nazism, while building a wider alliance including the United States and Russia to defeat Hitler. The change here was a military victory leading to political change which affected Europe and the world for the better.

  • Nelson Mandela

As the major rallying point in the Black South African struggle to undo Apartheid, the policy of enforced segregation of black people into ghetto townships, Mandela eventually rallied world opinion and indirectly led other nations to ostracise the white dominated South African government. Eventually they abandoned their unfair stance and the black people gained a democratic and dominant voice. He delivered the political change that was needed. After the black dominated government was established, he led again when he prevented the expected bloodshed of recrimination; when he set up the “truth and reconciliation” hearings he delivered peaceful change when all expected civil violence.

Business leaders

  • Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs was of course most famous for being the driving force behind Apple Computers. He was associated strongly with a number of major changes in the industry. The first one was that he, along with Partner Steve Wozniak, created a personal computer, and an industry to make it available at a time when very few people had access to personal computing. The change he drove was to make personal computing available and of course to make money while doing it. The second standout change he made was to the quality of computers available. On returning to Apple after he had been ousted, and finding the company unfocused and diffuse, he simplified their product lines and focused on the quality and usability of a small line of beautiful products. Despite very premium prices, they sold like hotcakes and the rest is history. The change here was to take a confusing product line and make it simple and desirable. Steve Jobs also had a fantastic leadership success story with his purchase of a nascent Pixar Films who went on to create classic movies like toy story, but his leadership was more hands-off in this example.

Lou Gerstner

Taking over IBM when it was going down the tubes, fast, must have seemed an impossible task. IBM had over 225,000 employees worldwide and culturally it was a slow-changing behemoth; it was difficult to see how it could survive as an organisation when nobody was buying its main product of mainframe business computers anymore? In 1993 it lost 8 billion dollars. Gerstner focused the company on becoming more nimble and smaller. 100,000 jobs were cut fairly quickly to save the company overall. He did his research carefully and realised that what businesses needed was the integration of all of their increasingly diverse ICT equipment so that it would do what they wanted. Servicing the ICT needs of businesses became more than 50% of the profit of IBM in a very short time, they became massively successful again as a “software and services” company. In 2011 IBM was 100 years old and the 5th most valuable US company. The change Gerstner brought around was to save a dying business, radically re-invent it, and indeed to see it thrive again.

Richard Branson

Building a business empire of more than 400 businesses known as the Virgin group is arguably a change all on its own. This is a change that many businesses have made just by growing and becoming successful. If you asked Richard Branson what the change is that he has brought about, he might well describe way he does business across his empire as the important outcome. (Not too presumptuous as he has written a lot about it). Richard Branson believes in a hands-off-the-details approach to business; he creates great teams and keeps an ethos of servicing customer needs, as well as remaining playful, even a little iconoclastic across everything he does. In his book “Business laid bare” Branson describes how he will often interview people and appoint them because they are talented. He will then expect them to design their own role within the company to add value! The change he has brought about is to build a charismatic, creative business with a popularity among employees and customers only a few other businesses can match so consistently.

Education leaders

Tim Brighhouse

Tim Brighouse had a spell in teaching, as well as in academia as a professor at Keele University. Unusually, he returned to the school system as the Chief Education Officer for Birmingham at a time when many schools were opting out of local authority control and taking a direct government grant instead. Brighouse was asked how many more opt-outs would be reasonable during his first year and he replied, “none”. No more opted out. It could be argued that Tim Brighouse built a sense of pride and excitement again in what is often called “big schooling”. He built his leadership in big ideas, often maverick in his approach, he built great relationships with people at all levels, and believed in praise and generating shared vision to drive system-wide growth. His stewardship of Birmingham was judged a success, despite very public spats with the government of the time and resulted in his appointment as Schools Commissioner for London during the London Challenge. London schools, traditionally not high performers have improved their exam performances at a higher rate than many other English authorities. Despite the relatively low public profile he cultivated up till his retirement, he is rated by the government, his headteachers and other staff, and has brought growth and confidence to the major education organisations he has led. The change he has brought about, is to take massive public school networks, and to reinject a culture of confidence and vision within them. He does this by leading people and ideas.

Dave Levin and Mike Feinberg

Levin and Feinberg founded and led a Charter schools movement in the United States called the KIPP schools. This stands for the Knowledge Is Power Programme. Levin and Feinberg had a strong belief in the power of great teaching, that went beyond even great pedagogy, but also bedded itself in knowledge about the background of children born into challenging neighbourhoods. This knowledge of childrens’ challenging settings didn’t translate into giving them an easy time or lowering expectations, instead it was about raising the level of expectation and raising the engagement and challenge for those young people. Levin and Feinberg led the new KIPP schools movement from a position of passion and learning leadership. They both struggled as young idealistic teachers to break through as great teachers for the kind of kids they were teaching while on the Teach for America scheme and placed in Houston. They tackled this challenge by attaching themselves to the best, most committed teachers and befriending them, studying their methods, developing their own, until they got good at it.  Once they had formed a clear model of what young people needed to lift them out of poverty and challenge, they realised that the current model of public schooling was not tuned properly to deliver it. The KIPP schools introduced, more commitment, selection even, but on the basis of commitment not grades, longer hours, fewer holidays, more selective recruitment of teachers. Students who achieved, were expected to return and give some service to the schools to build a sense of the outcomes that would break the poverty to underachievement cycle. The schools are a success, and it is down to the brave ideas of two teachers who have challenged a  number of orthodoxies and practices to deliver a new model. The change that Levin and Feinberg made is to create a new model of schooling as leaders who bucked the traditional expectations in many ways. They were relatively inexperienced, they challenged the existing system, they wore their learning more prominently than their knowledge; the power of their ideas was turned into something that they had to hustle for and drive into existence. The KIPP schools are currently a network of 125 high performing schools that these guys brought into being for the good of poorer kids. It was no accident that their first school was in the Bronx in New York!

Sir William Atkinson

William Atkinson is often cited as Britain’s most successful headteacher. When he took over Hammersmith Comprehensive in the White City area of London, it was pretty much seen as Britain’s worst school with the Daily Mirror running a headline claiming you could get drugs within 5 minutes of arriving. The local authority asked Atkinson, a neighbouring head teacher to assess the school. He identified the school as being in crisis management only, with only a small core of effective staff. The local authority asked him to take over, and he agreed on the condition that he would have a free hand to do things his way. He apparently asked for this freedom on the basis that what was being done already was clearly not working. He brought strong leadership to the school, demanded lesson planning and management observations of teaching. He began competency proceedings against weak staff, most of whom left, and generally demanded the best from the school and the community. I have been fortunate enough to meet William Atkinson to run training for the school and I can attest, that when he speaks, you find yourself listening. Phoenix High, as it is now called is currently achieving something like the national average in attainment figures. This makes them hugely improved, possibly the most improved school in the UK! William Atkinson’s change was to take an undisciplined and crisis-wrought school and to give it discipline, direction and ambition again; no mean feat.

These of course are examples of leaders whom we would all recognise as archetypes. There is an important observation here though. I could have listed world leaders who wrought changes till the cows come home! I could name and explore the changes wrought by business leaders till I had to stop for a shave! My own area of passion, education, not so much. Sure, I personally know some education leaders whom I admire, however, shared icons of educational leadership are thin on the ground. Don’t believe me, try it for yourself. ask people to name 5 well known leaders from politics, business and education. Good luck!

There is a distinct difference with educational leadership, it appears in practice to concern itself more with tweaking, rebuilding under-performing schools, evolutionary change and “driving the machine harder” to get more attainment from fewer resources. It is arguably not a very transformative business, and it is the transformational leaders who get remembered and become case studies (or even inspirations); why is this? Politics and business are inherently highly unstable areas. Education is not. Politicians are working against the vast tidal shifts of macroeconomics, and they have to make major, tectonic shifts to right wrongs and to deal with crises. Businesses to a similar degree, thrive or die depending on how well they can innovate, and change; here there is real pressure on a leader to think differently, to transform. Transformative change is the core mission of many businesses. Education is comparatively stable; there have not been many changes in education that would transform at a fundamental level how schools operate, and so a tweaking approach has been appropriate. Does this mean that the development of educational leadership should maintain this focus on evolutionary change? Probably not, and here is why?

Education is experiencing a huge tension between the old familiar ways of running schooling and the enormous external pressures conspiring to change the expectations of both young people and parents, (not to mention employers). The pressures include:

  • The internet. It is hard to remember the incredibly short time that we have had a modern internet for. It has arguably transformed nations, and will continue to do so. Many people have observed that the recent “Arab Spring” of uprisings was in large part due to the sharing of political expectations around the world. It is no coincidence that many nations censor and control access to the real internet. (Syria attempted to do exactly this during the early stages of their uprising). Young people are now increasingly accessing learning online, how long before the personal and immediate nature of online learning begins to challenge the factory-processing model that schools are often observed to deliver?
  • The increasing mismatch between the research about learning and our practice. For example, how much longer can processing children narrowly by age be acceptable?
  • The plateau of results; given the effort we are bringing to bear on our schools to improve results, we are hardly blowing the rest of the world away! It seems increasingly possible that a whole cultural rethink of schools and societal attitudes to schooling in the UK might be coming.
  • The “attainment gap”. The OECD externally, and observers like the Sutton Trust at home are reminding us regularly that to be poorer in the UK is essentially to be educationally disadvantaged.
  • The “gender gap”. The increasing and dramatic educational handicap known as maleness, (this is no longer an exaggeration, the OECD have just identified this as an increasing international trend). There is a gender crisis, and despite many working groups looking to further tweak what we are doing, we are making scant inroads into this area. Again, how long can we continue to hope that our current culture and practice will be sufficient to tackle this problem? Will boys continue to engage with something that might not be serving them?
  • The cost. Education like health seems to expand its scope and its costs all the time. We are extending leaving-ages upwards and starting-ages downwards, and it may be that the financial cracks which are clearly showing now, may grow into something more cataclysmic.
  • Teachers are very tired and stressed. Society puts a huge amount of expectation on the profession, but the individual agency and influence of teachers may not be sufficiently high for their own motivation. Is there a problem of professional trust?
  • As these pressures become more complex to solve, and the emerging theories and practices require more professional learning to stay abreast, have teachers got the time to learn? Does the job build-in enough learning-together as opposed to just surviving the accountability machine?

There is a real possibility that schools could experience their own breakdown; certainly there are no shortage of pressures for them to change, at present we have a dialogue about change that really doesn’t seem to be matched by sufficient real innovation. The idea that schools have got it right at present, and that none of these pressures, (or the many that I have not listed), may seem foolish? If the dominant leadership approach is one of “tweaking to transform”, then we may not be developing leaders who will be able to lead us through this time of potential upheaval? Ronald Barnett, has spoken in his research about the fact that organisations that regularly practice real, if small changes, cope better when massive changes are forced upon them. If massive changes are coming, have we got the kind of leaders who will embrace them, and help an already rattled profession to find some excitement in learning to change?

(next post will explore leadership personalities and the kind of changes that they may be motivated to drive).

Featured image by ffaalumni Thanks

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