Monkey See, Monkey Do

I am very pleased to see a major political party make a commitment today to improving the quality of school leadership. Tristram Hunt announced that Labour “will work with leading head teacher associations and their members on plans for a dedicated School Leadership Institute to champion quality in school leadership.”

This is music to my ears and seeks to address the disastrous decision to allow the National College of School Leadership (as it once was) to wither over the life of this current parliament.

I have been a teacher for fourteen years and it saddens me to say that virtually all of the leadership training I have had thus far has been pitifully poor. I compare this to the leadership training that my closest friend has received in the armed forces. He’s been a Royal Marine as long as I’ve been a teacher, was recently the youngest Lieutenant Colonel (or equivalent) in the armed forces and has been honoured by the Queen for his leadership in combat. I am deeply envious of the leadership development he’s been able to enjoy.

From the outset he was selected for his leadership potential. Each role he has undertaken has been, in teacher terms, short and sweet. It is a clear expectation in the armed forces that officers will learn quickly and improve in readiness for their next posting and/or promotion. Therein lies one fundamental difference between the two sectors of public service. Armed forces personnel are deployed as the organisation as a whole sees fit. The fact that the organisation has thousands of personnel in it gives them a flexibility that a school cannot benefit from. No-one is allowed to get too comfy as personnel are expected to continually develop and the system is set up to ensure this happens.

Postings are typically for two or three years and this prevents a leader developing the feeling that they own the place. More than once I’ve heard from a headteacher that “this is my school. I’ve worked here for 15/20/25 years.”  The size of the armed forces also allows them to take hundreds of middle-ranking and senior officers out of circulation for up to a year as they study at the Defence Academy of the United Kingdom for Masters qualifications and more. The entire system is set up to produce leaders and selects, develops and promotes them from the time they join, and for some this is as teenagers when they join the cadets or the Defence Sixth Form College at Welbeck.

Formal training is not the be all and end all, as we all know, so his presence at COBRA meetings, his “I was briefing Gordon Brown on…”, “I was talking to David Cameron about…” experiences all amount to a significant exposure to many different leaders in many different contexts. He is also aware of when his next two postings are likely to occur and what they are likely to be. Secondments to foreign allies and to the Ministry of Defence are also commonplace. It is not unheard of for teachers to be seconded to DfE but it is a rarity.

I compare this to my own experiences. To be clear, I take full responsibility for my own professional development, and it pales into insignificance when viewed alongside my friend’s. When I started my PGCE I was a fully paid up member of the monkey see, monkey do camp. I took a while to feel comfortable in my own skin in the classroom so resorted to observing what worked (there’s a whole blog in there about how I knew if something worked) and copying that. I have a raw memory of the first lesson I EVER observed in a secondary school on my PGCE. The teacher, a former army officer and policeman interestingly, was showing his Year 10 class a Billy Connolly video. My knowledge of the KS4 physics programme of study wasn’t solid then, but I’m sure that wasn’t in it. He left at Easter and I took them on. I learned fast.

In my last role as a deputy headteacher I was pleasantly surprised to be asked by the new headteacher what I was looking for from her. I responded that I would like, for the first time in my professional life, to have effective performance management. Up until that point I had felt that my own appraisal experiences had been ineffective in making me a better teacher and leader. Remembering one of my first targets as an NQT (set by my boss’ boss) makes me smile to this day – “To ensure that 10a (my class) outperform 10b (my boss’ class) in the modular exams.” I’m not sure if my boss had a target that set 10b to outperform 10a. I realise now that for a long time in my early teaching career I never got close to good leaders. I was unable to articulate what good leadership looked like as I hadn’t spent enough time under its influence.

The overwhelming majority of my leadership development has come from working closely with, and being coached by, great leaders and great governors in the latter half of my career to date. They have invested their own time and energy in developing others to ensure there is a supply of leaders on their way through the system, and working with them has been a tremendous privilege. The supply, though, is not meeting demand.

The one disappointing, but entirely predictable, element of today’s announcement was the absence of any acknowledgement that leadership recruitment in special schools needs addressing. We will never be front and centre in policy announcements, but close to half of all special school headship vacancies require re-advertising and this cannot be ignored. NPQH’s generic nature was never able to reflect the specific skills needed to lead a special school and this must be reflected in any plans Labour have for their School Leadership Institute.

I urge Tristram Hunt and the Labour Party to ensure that the proposed School Leadership Institute gives due regard to the specific issues facing leadership recruitment in special schools. Organisations set up to teach the most vulnerable members of society need the best leadership, and the proposed gold standard accredited headship qualification could be the best route to achieve that.

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3 thoughts on “Monkey See, Monkey Do

  1. Thanks for this, Jarlath. It would be good to discuss it sometime.

    I’ve been involved in a lot of leadership development work in recent years, some of it via the National College, some independently. You say “the overwhelming majority of my leadership development has come from working closely with, and being coached by, great leaders and great governors in the latter half of my career to date”. To me, this is always likely to be more powerful and effective than what you describe as “formal training”. If such focussed, relevant development has been effective, is it still true to say “virtually all of the leadership training I have had thus far has been pitifully poor”?

    • Hi Jill,
      Thank you so much for reading and taking the time to reply. The coaching from others has been, in all but one case, inadvertent “training”. It’s come about by other means, i.e. coaching is just their style.
      I would stick to my guns on this insofar as anything I’ve taken part in that’s been formally labelled as leadership training has been disappointing.
      It must be noted that my own attitude, which has not always been positive, will have contributed. The other factor is the lack of commitment back at school to provide the opportunities the courses (Leadership Pathways, for example) demanded to make it real.
      Thanks again,
      Jarlath

      • Thanks, Jarlath. Would really like to talk it through sometime! I do a fair amount of leadership training these days and think there must be things I can learn from your experience to make it better!

        I’m also reflecting on the comment you made via Twitter that leadership in your sector isn’t dramatically different from leading any other type of school, and am wondering how that relates to the leadership training issue too.

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