When you think about it, politics must be amongst the few pursuits that don’t require any specific training – especially in leadership roles. Aspiring politicians just have to demonstrate ability and be noticed somewhere along the familiar pathways towards pre-selection. Sure, they accumulate a variety of leadership skills in their previous lives: Some may be leaders from the front, others from alongside or even from behind. Depending on their leadership nursery, some might be top-down leaders, others committed to consensus. Perhaps, most lie somewhere in-between.
But there is no formal schooling in political leadership, in an age when we have a smorgasbord of leadership development courses developed for business and bureaucracy. Gone are the days when anyone on the shop floor could get to the boardroom without jumping through an array of learning and development hoops. No longer is it assumed that the teacher who might excel in the classroom will become the best school principal.
Good training doesn’t always make for better leaders, but it certainly helps. School principals know that effective leadership is about creating evidence-driven and long-term improvement in schools. The quick fixes don’t work. You can’t dictate school reform; you can’t legislate it; you can’t transplant it from somewhere else and command it to work. You have to provide inspiration and example and achieve long-lasting improvement is through engagement, support and encouragement, with measured amounts of pressure.
Political leadership, on the other hand, is rarely about the long term. Pitching school change as an “education revolution” was probably symbolic: A revolution is far better suited to a three-year electoral cycle. Get in, score some easy runs and fingers crossed for the next electoral test. Dress it all up in the language of the long term (did Kevin Rudd invent the future?) – and seek authority by frequent references to evidence-based policy.
Alas, it was not to last. Rudd and Gillard made some progress in areas of teacher quality and aspects of equity and capital improvements in schools. But the evidence for the rest of their agenda went missing and much of their policy seemed designed to attract a headline more than anything else. Better to get over the line by recycling hype and pandering to the strongest lobbies and to rusted-on beliefs about schools. In such times, the evidence soon takes second place to policy development by gut feeling, fuelled by the always-impending election.
To be fair, school principals also have a tendency to be politicians. Go along to any school promotional activity and you’ll hear spin that would make even the best politicians blush. And school policies and programs often become compromises, designed to spread, or dilute, both the pain and the credit. You can see this in decisions about teacher allocations, curriculum and grading of classes. Just like politicians, principals are not backward in making loud noises about rigour, toughness and standards. Throwaway lines about zero-tolerance are alive and well in our schools.
But good school principals are still well ahead in the leadership stakes. They are far better prepared than politicians to take risks and do what is right, ahead of what is popular. I became principal of one school that had, before my time, reduced the school week to four days for senior students. Far from being a soft option it allowed senior students to swap schools to enrol in specific courses. Far sighted but risky - it paid off. In my own time there, the school tackled a sensitive political issue in a performing arts presentation. Risky, but the right thing to do at the time and we out-stared an onslaught from the tabloid media.
True, school leaders don’t face an electorate every three years and can arguably place principle ahead of popularity. But, they do face an opinion poll in the form of rising or falling school enrolments. Parents and students will vote with their feet if the school leadership doesn’t inspire them with confidence. They’ll support school leadership that places a priority on student learning and welfare. They’ll forgive the occasional flaws if leaders are consistent, firm and focused.
Some might argue that schools are closed and cosy places – as distinct from the rough and tumble place of public and political life. But you don’t have to sit for long in the principal’s chair to feel the host of conflicting expectations and demands from students, teachers, parents, school authorities, media and governments. The stress created by this explains why far fewer people are lining up to lead schools.
Perhaps the leadership that is best for schools wouldn’t go astray in the corridors of political power. Decisions that are right and decisions that are popular don’t have to be at opposite ends. The path to doing better in schools and elsewhere lies in such things as shared purpose and commitment, high morale, expectations and standards. Relationships of trust and respect between all the players within and outside the organization are critical to success.
It’s not too hard, really.
Discuss in our Forums
See what other readers are saying about this article!
Click here to read & post comments.
4 posts so far.