Dealing with impossible dilemmas


How do you deal with dilemmas as a school leader – the problems where no matter what you do, you can't win? Alex Wood takes inspiration from a recent book by respected educationalist Danny Murphy.

Leadership is a much-lauded educational trait. Former headteacher at Crieff, McLaren High and Lornshill, and a driving force behind the Scottish Qualification for Headship, Danny Murphy, has thoroughly credible leadership credentials. Given its powerful insights gained over a dedicated professional lifetime, it would be reassuring if his newly republished and significantly revised Professional School Leadership: Dealing with Dilemmas (Dunedin) were to be taken to heart by the official leaders of Scottish education.

It insists that there are no easy fixes to the daily problems educationalists face. Every school is unique, operating within a complex, pluralist society in which conflicting pressures push school leaders in contradictory directions. 

These tensions are the source of dilemmas: problems without easy solutions; solutions which, if attained, never please all parties; and solutions, the pursuit of which create major stress for those managing the fall-out.

It provides real-life dilemmas as exercises in leadership development. It insists that many of school leaders’ most morale-sapping dilemmas are directly related to the neo-liberal reforms of the education system, particularly “the New Public Management” paradigm and its insistent identification of the success or failure of schools with the person of the headteacher. He roundly condemns the demands of work intensification in education and neatly characterises the necessary survival trait as “workaholism”.

His first vignette is one in which a school is implementing its council’s healthy eating policy. Unhealthy foods have been eliminated from the canteen menu. Vans start operating outside the school gate. Road safety issues arise. Bullying emerges in the queues round the vans – but they are beyond the school’s boundaries and control.

The local authority has given the van-owners trading licences. The police are reluctant to intervene. Many pupils and parents insist on their rights as consumers to chips and stodge. How should the school react? There is of course no right answer but there are, Murphy suggests, approaches likely to lead to better solutions and others likely to lead to worse.

A further dilemma concerned parental allegations of bullying and sexual harassment (under police investigation) of their daughter by another student. The girl refuses to come to school unless the alleged perpetrator is removed. He also however, innocent till proven guilty, has a right to education. The girl’s parent threatens to “expose” the school’s inaction to the press.

His starting point is that, in schools as elsewhere, the essence of leadership is emotional. Dilemmas must be understood and resolved with reference to values. To achieve that, school leaders must be rooted in an empathetic psychology, understand the social and political context of their schools, and have an ethical perspective.

As well as indicating underlying skills for resolving dilemmas, Murphy suggests a strategic “toolkit”. After a preliminary assessment of any dilemma, the COPE process offers options: Clarify the situation and its essentials, identify the Options, preferably with advice and consultation, develop a Plan of action, and Evaluate the outcomes.

Murphy cautions against the new managerial perspective which sees education as a commodity which can be judged by its appeal to individual consumers, seeing humans rather as essentially inter-dependent. He refers regularly to John Macmurray, the Scottish philosopher and educationalist, now making a posthumous come-back with his emphasis on emotion as motivating action and the essentially relational nature of human beings.

There is no magic box of tricks with which school leaders can attain all the characteristics expected of them today, but Danny Murphy’s work provides a robust critique of the pressures they experience, a range of troubling vignettes to explore, and a toolkit to help consider these too frequently encountered daily dilemmas.

  • Alex Wood has been a teacher for 38 years. He is now an associate with the Scottish Centre for Studies in School Administration at Edinburgh University.


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