Why is there a stultifying dread of meaningful change and innovation in Scottish education?

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Alex Wood challenges the leadership of Scotland's education system, which he says is stuck in a bureaucratic culture which douses innovation.

Why is there a stultifying dread of meaningful change and innovation in Scottish education?

Don Ledingham, executive director of services for people at East Lothian Council and director of education and children’s services at Midlothian Council, offered his perspective at the recent conference of SELMAS, the Scottish Educational Leadership, Management and Administration Society. 

The theme of the conference was: Up-front and visible educational leadership, challenging the Scottish psyche.

Mr Ledingham is an “up-front” educational leader. For him, innovation is the successful exploitation of ideas, generated at the intersection of invention and insight, which lead to the creation of public, social or economic value. The definition may be debatable but his proposals for supporting innovation gained an echo from his entire audience.

He suggested that there were major barriers to innovation: a reluctance to take risks; an underestimate of staff’s innovative capacity; an unwarranted perception of obstacles, lack of time and lack of resources; and an impetus to “chasing the numbers”.

Innovation however is essential because the old systems are broken. In particular the “cascade” model of change and development simply is not working. Changes agreed at the top and gradually passed through the ranks ultimately hit his identified barriers and became unstuck. 

He could almost have been describing Curriculum for Excellence, a well-intentioned innovation, grinding to a halt because of a mechanistic implementation plan and an unwise reluctance to accept that further changes can still be made to the model.

If we want to change the system radically it is classroom teachers who will make the difference and teacher-led innovation which will create teacher commitment to change and development. Successful reform requires shared ownership.

Shared ownership of educational change will only come about in a culture of risk-taking, of trying and getting it wrong, of learning from mistakes and of admitting that we often do not know the answers. Above all, educational leaders will be judged not for driving change but for creating space for it. These however are the very opposite of the management norms in contemporary Scottish education.

He proposed a range of attitudinal changes necessary in Scottish education to achieve real change and to convince everyone in the team of the value of change and improvement and found a ready echo for these among his audience.

Those seeking change must appeal to values and a sense of service. They must consistently celebrate small successes and share the credit but take the blame. They must prioritise their own efforts and avoid casting blame on others for the innovation which does not succeed. 

Relationships are crucial and those seeking to change organisations must work to know the people in them, not the “roles” they play. They must flip the present priority and place the qualitative data before the quantitative.

Perhaps his strongest advice was that the benefits of change required continual reiteration as a narrative and not as a policy. Leaders must “tell the story” and connect and communicate authentically and honestly. The leader must also however, he suggested, bare his (or her) back and take the blows on behalf of those he (or she) leads.

What Mr Ledingham outlined are human values for what should be the most humane of public services – education.

Sadly, most of the leadership of Scotland’s great educational institutions mouth platitudes about change but are stuck in a bureaucratic culture which douses innovation.

Clichés and market jargon rather than authentic communication are their communicative norms. They remain light years yet from such an enlightened, up-front and courageous leadership model.

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


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