Leadership development, the British way!



  • Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel —Socrates
  • Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire. —William Butler Yeats
  • Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire. —Plutarch
  • The mind is not a vessel that needs filling, but wood that needs igniting. —Plutarch


Everyone who reads about education has read this quote or versions of it many times. I love that it has been misattributed so many times. I suppose that the reason for this is that it seems resonant with our observations of learning; that people learn themselves, rather than being force-fed knowledge, and that the key moment in learning is the awakening or the realisation, not the teacher transferring the contents from one mind to another! And so it is for learning about leadership!

Oh how wrong we are getting the education of leaders in Scottish education; we have potential “next generation” leaders throughout our system, from classroom practitioners to depute head teachers, and we need to ensure that they all have the best chance possible to awaken their passion for leading. So how is the collective Scottish Educational Psyche arranging this? We are arranging courses for headteachers, who need special high-level leadership development due to their elevated status and vast influence on the system. We are discussing what we mean by the oft used and ill defined phrase, “teacher leadership”; this has resulted in effectively no clear national strategy to expose teachers to the “lighting of the fire that we keep telling ourselves that we need throughout the system. We are simultaneously developing middle leadership courses, for Principal teachers, departmental heads or even promising classroom teachers (showing our confusion in practice) to support them in effective middle-leadership, whatever that is?

What is middle leadership? Truthfully I don’t know? I spend a lot of time thinking about, and teaching about leadership and the answer seems to me to be either breathtakingly obvious or completely unfathomable depending on your viewpoint. It seems to me that there are two opposite viewpoints possible with the usual shades of grey in-between. One viewpoint is that school and system leaders have a special kind of leadership, based on a wise overview of International trends, Scottish and UK policy trends and design, as well as the ability to focus on and facilitate distribution of leadership leading to great learning and teaching. In this world-view, middle leaders need the ability to “support and challenge” team members, build those teams, focus on great self-evaluation within the team and look nationally where it pertains to their field of expertise! Teachers are supposed to learn to…..well actually the degree of national confusion over this means that I don’t even know the stereotype to employ here! The other world-view, to which I subscribe, says that leadership is leadership regardless of your current role! Setting shared vision is setting shared vision, building teams is building teams, communicating effectively is communicating effectively, making courageous decisions to change things for the better is making courageous……well you get the point I’m sure!

So what are we achieving by segmenting our development in this way? Why are we doing this? There are two matching answers to this, one plausible but overstated, the other frankly a bit shameful! Context is one answer to why we do this, Headteachers work in a particular context, teachers work in a different context, so they need to be trained in leadership for that context; I find this plausible but ultimately unconvincing because I have “taught” people from all levels generic leadership skills, often at the same time, and they spark-together about the common challenges of leading for their common purpose. (I find these situations healthy and mutually motivating). The other answer, is that we have an innate belief in hierarchy that runs through our system like the letters through a stick of rock! Even if we did believe that leadership skills were essentially the same for senior leaders as they are for classroom teachers, we would have to invent the difference, because we couldn’t have the Captain and the Lieutenants attending training with the ratings! Dear god no, that would undermine order in the Napoleonic warship of Scottish Education! Headteachers need to have an understanding of policy contexts for their leadership, middle leaders (the midshipmen of my analogy) don’t need to know about national or international issues; they only need to know their subject, their special area of control and a little about leading teams. On the day that they are allowed the sacred access to thinking about future senior leadership, that is when they will have access allowed to “bigger thoughts” and their “technical leadership” will be put in its place as a suitable “apprenticeship” and they will be allowed to breathe the more rarified air of the Wardroom! They will presumably be allowed to read the pages of the TESS that they previously averted their eyes from as being only for the “toffs” and senior managers with a big-system-overview! I know, it sounds ridiculous, but I think it is more than a little close to home. Let’s be honest, the General Teaching Council looked at what senior leaders do and what middle leaders do, and of course the resulting standards must support the world-view that we are acting on; school leaders must be dealing with a different, special set of skills, and middle leaders only need to learn and deal with a more basic subset! That must be what happened to explain our national approach to learning from the new Scottish College of Educational Leadership to local authorities! That must underpin our hierarchy first approach to learning! Except we know it doesn’t. The leadership skills according to our GTCS are the same (with a small HR section appended for Heads) and yet nothing changed in our world view!

Orchardson_William_On_Board_HMS_Bellerophon_Imagine if Steve Jobs had to learn low level leadership because he was only running a little business from a garage! Imagine he didn’t need to follow big industry trends, didn’t need big vision, because he only needed to learn how to run a tiny garage scale enterprise! Dear god, it’s time we held a mirror up to ourselves!