It seems as if, in the Government's eyes, the answer to all our problems in the public services is leadership, whether the problems be in the health service, schools or the police. Of course, such an approach immediately neglects the fact that these services are seriously resource limited, but that aside (and it's a big aside) is the emphasis on leadership well placed?
There is an interesting parallel between the notions of intelligence and leadership. Both of these are vague terms with no background of supporting theory. 'Intelligence is what intelligence tests measure', and 'We cannot define leadership but we know it when we see it', are typical of the feeble attempts to salvage these notions. If we are going to measure something, we need to know what it is (exactly) that we intend to measure.
Both intelligence and leadership are dangerous notions because they frame narratives in terms that are at best ill-defined and at worst spurious. In an effort to reconcile the idea of leadership with reality, it is presented as 'transactional', 'transformative', 'instructional', 'authoritative', 'servant' – and many others, with the latest crazy fad of 'distributed'. And in a similar way intelligence is framed as 'functional', 'spatial', 'dextrous', 'judgemental', and with a much hyped recent addition of 'emotional'.
What is clear in the case of both intelligence and leadership is that the force of any meaning is in the adjective not the noun. Thus we comprehend transactional leadership because we are aware of a clear prior description of actions in an organisation in which one goal is transacted for another. The term leadership in this case is merely a place holder which enables us to bypass consideration of the complicated (and possibly complex) patterns of influence and power in organisational dynamics.
But there are common ways of talking in which the notion of a leader does seem to make sense. We go out onto the hills with a leader of the expedition. We have an operation in hospital by a surgeon who is a leader in the field of the particular malady. What is involved here is experience and expertise. You don't just have to know about the hills and the weather patterns, you have to know how to apply the expertise in the unique set of circumstances you face at the time. Similarly, a skilful surgeon recognises instinctively the unique patterns of veins in a patient during an operation.
In these cases, we are giving up some of our freedom for action by trusting the leader as someone who can bridge the gap between expertise and practice. At an individual level, this link between expertise and practice appears as tacit knowledge – that is, something the individual is able to do but cannot articulate in a way which enables someone else to imitate. But to extend this simple notion of leadership to explain influence in large organisations is to use a concept out of the context which gives it meaning.
Writers often attempt to make a distinction between leadership and management, but there is further important distinction which cannot be overlooked, between management and administration. Properly understood, management is about delivering medium- and long-term strategy, as well as dealing with the intricacies and crises of daily operation. Seen this way, it is a demanding job and one for which it is possible to set benchmarks for achievement. It is a creative role and quite different from administration, where there are procedures and rules to be followed by administrators in discharging their duties.
Are there benchmarks for achievement in leadership? It is often said that you can't have leaders without followers. It is supposed that there is a (usually small) group of people who have the characteristics of leaders and another group who have the characteristics of followers. But consider the case of a headteacher in a school. They are expected to be a leader of the teaching staff but won't last long if they do not follow the official government line peddled by the inspectorate or the multitude of specific regulations imposed by the local authority. They are thus simultaneously both a leader and a follower – apparently making a nonsense of the supposed distinction between the two.
You can use verbal tricks to get round this problem – saying that they are operating in different domains – but this is just a weak attempt to conceal the ineffectiveness of leadership as a useful explanatory concept. And given the present level of procedure and regulation affecting schools, headteachers are, for most of the time, little more than administrators. So here is the paradox: official rhetoric casts headteachers as leaders but official practice treats them as administrators.
So where did all this leadership rhetoric start? One argument is that the state pays for education so has the right to say what the outcomes should be. For a start, this argument seems to assume that schools and education are the same thing. But much of a child's learning occurs away from school. The main social function of schools is to look after children while the parents are at work. A function which has been brought into sharp focus by the present lockdown and which is perhaps more important than ever, as in many households both parents now work. The educational function of schools is variously presented as preparation for life (which usually means preparation for employment) or as preparation for further, usually academic study. It's in this latter rather limited area, that the entire apparatus of testing and school inspection is located.
In this context of the state seeking control, the quest for school leadership as a agent of change started with a paper some years ago from the inspectorate claiming that some 20% of headteachers were unsatisfactory. Against what criteria these headteachers were unsatisfactory was never entirely clear. Indeed, it was largely the result of inspectors rating schools in four categories – so it was no real surprise that the lowest category came in at 20%. Clearly, it was said, 'we need to do something about this', and the answer was leadership. Checking the various inspectorate reports of the time it was clear that the majority of the 'unsatisfactory' heads were older and had been in the job for some time.
What did the Government do? The answer was provide leadership training for teachers hoping some day to become headteachers. So the Scottish Qualification for Headship was born, successful completion of which is now a requirement for anyone to be appointed to a headteacher post. Such training is provided by several university departments to standards set by the Scottish Council for Educational Leadership (now part of Education Scotland). Such leadership courses may well provide aspiring headteachers with the opportunity to consider and reflect on educational issues but (so far as I am aware) no evaluation has been undertaken which shows the benefit of these courses against the original objectives. Indeed, there is a danger that the whole apparatus of headteacher training is directed at producing a emerging cadre of new headteachers who are compliant to government policy.
Does this matter? Our entire secondary school system is now a vast enterprise which is too big to fail. In an article on 'The fear of innovation', Donald Schon describes how large bureaucratic organisations continue to invest in schemes long after they are effective. 'Let's put in just a little more money (or regulation or effort) and we will start to see results.' So much spent on capital superstructure, too many people with a career stake in the status quo, and the pubic relations disaster of admitting we have done the wrong thing, all conspire to prop up the existing edifice.
Some years ago, the Xerox corporation tried an interesting experiment with the yearly intake of new employees. The intake was divided into two groups, one with the best academic qualifications and the other, without qualifications, chosen at interview on the basis of personality and enterprise. Two years later, the contrast was clear. It was the second group who had far out stripped the first in their contribution to innovative applications and designs. It is very difficult to break out of existing paradigms. It's a brave official who will tell the First Minister that her (entirely praiseworthy) attempts to 'close the gap' are doomed to overall failure in the present system.
There is a Peanuts
cartoon in which Suzie asks Charlie Brown what he got out of a lesson on the civil war. Charlie Brown replies: 'I got a C'. Surveys show that an increasing number of young people see secondary school in just such an instrumental way: 'get the grades to get a job or career'. Teachers do their best in a system which values conformity above creativity. Yet most commentators agree that young people will need to adapt to a rapidly changing world and one where learning will be a lifelong activity.
The BBC has recently broadcast a short series by Alex Beard on the future of education. He does not attempt to provide a blueprint for immediate change but simply to give food for thought about future possibilities. In this regard, he is in the footsteps of authors, such as Lewis Perelman (School's Out
, published in 1992), who were also proposing a radical view of education in the future. Why have such proposals had so little effect on the present system? I have an S3 choice sheet from a grammar school in the 1930s. Put it against a choice sheet from a secondary school today and it is basically the same. A few names have changed but essentially the same subjects, the same teaching in year groups, the same divisions of the day. There have been no fundamental changes in the way secondary schools operate for the last 50 years.
Now, more than ever before, we need innovation for the way in which we conduct secondary education. We continue to read reports from the great and good in the present system who, in many ways, are the least well placed to see its defects since they are its main beneficiaries. Where will we find the true innovators? One thing is certain, it won't be from the so-called leaders in the present system.
David Eastwood is Emeritus Senior Lecturer at the Department of Education, Aberdeen University