I heard two pieces of news last week; one bad, one good.

The bad news is that the Scottish Government is planning to send head teachers to university to learn ‘Leadership’.

The good news is of a head teacher who has decided to go back to teaching.

‘Leadership’ is to corporate life what phlogiston was to early science. Phlogistgon, you may recall, was the mysterious element that made things burn.

‘Leadership’ is of the same stuff – it is what politicians or corporate heads hope will ignite the enthusiasm of staff for their programmes and policies. But like phlogiston this ‘Leadership’ is fiction written up by people who neither inhabit nor understand the real world.

The head teacher in question is quitting because he is fed up shuttling between schools, trying to obey government initiatives, having the hours of his classroom assistants cut, and filling out forms to show he has done his job.

He had replaced another head teacher who ran an effective school that taught bairns to read, write and count, and many more things beside. But he threw in his hand when HM Inspectors marked him down on ‘Leadership’.

This they based on a few casual conversations with teachers, classroom assistants and parents – and me. I thought the man was a good leader; he ran a happy ship, listened to what his staff had to say and taught a class himself to keep in touch with teaching.

All these kept his mind on the reality from which he suffered. Nothing is more important to a leader than that.

But the inspectors, who probably had never led anything other than a quiet life, used a different template, one taught to them in abstraction and reduced to a few headings on a sheet of A4.

The late Professor Reg Revans exposed this superficiality in The Education of Managers. He wrote, the industrial staff college….is always impressive, but remains in the tradition that sufficient knowledge is to be found in the writings and examples of illustrious men, and that, since dialectic is the natural medium of command over one’s fellows, it can also command the economic and physical world…..

Of course head teachers need help with management; of course there is knowledge that will help them with that, but to take them out of school and stick them in a classroom in a university is not the way for them to learn it.

Let them dive into the unique circumstances in which they find themselves and learn how to swim by talking to fellow head teachers (‘comrades in adversity’, Revans called them). Trust them; they are intelligent people; they know how to learn – and to call in what they need when they need it.

Which brings us to toilet rolls…

The Economist had featured an article on attracting high-flyers into teaching. In reply, the Head of German and Latin at Bishop Stortford School, with a first class degree from Oxford and a PhD from Cambridge listed what she needed. First was freedom to visit the toilet when she needed to, and second, a reliable supply of toilet paper.

Get the message?

Teachers, Principal, Head or otherwise, do not need to be told what they need; they know.

Nor do they need a course at a university on a confection called ‘Leadership’. Management of professionals is not about command & control; it is about freedom and support.

And it’s not just teachers. I was horrified when our dentist told me he was attending a course on Leadership. I told him he was wasting his money but he insisted on explaining to me how this course would help him run the practice.

Then his dental nurse, a strip of a lass in her late teens, opened the door and said to him, ‘While you two are blethering in here there’s a patient waiting to be seen’.

Now that’s leadership!


Bryan Webster is an award-winning writer on management.



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