Lessons in leadership

Written by Tom Freeman on 15 October 2014 in Interviews

The chief executive of Scotland’s new College for Educational Leadership outlines her ambitions for the organisation

Gillian Hamilton was appointed to head up the newly-established Scottish College for Educational Leadership (SCEL) after a competitive selection process, according to their website. Some had apparently called her appointment ‘a no brainer’, after Hamilton had led the GTCS team which set up the revised professional standards which the SCEL will seek to articulate – embedding equity and sustainability into professional learning.

The first professional leader most children will encounter is their primary teacher, and Hamilton was no exception. Her ambition, even at that time, was to become a teacher. “Folk who know me well will tell you I was always a teacher,” she laughs, “but for a lot of people they become a teacher because of inspiring teachers.” Further up the school, however, she felt less inspired. “The headteacher was… I’m going to say an elderly gentleman. I’m hoping he was an elderly gentleman, because when you’re a pupil you think everyone’s elderly. My memory of him as a pupil was he was quite a detached figure. My memory of him at school was at assemblies, playing the violin,” she says. 
By a twist of fate, Hamilton ended up being the headteacher at the same school, Nether Robertland in Stewarton in Ayrshire, and much of the community were still there. “It was fabulous. A small number of the teachers who worked there had taught me as a pupil. They were great,” she remembers. A secondment to East Ayrshire Council to develop leadership at local authority level was initially for three months, but she “didn’t go back”. This period is when her interest in leadership development started, she says. “At that point CPD was about turning up for a one-off event, but actually, we’re so far away from that now.”
At the GTC she was able to be part of the development of Professional Update, which became a requirement in August, and the Framework for Educational Leadership. “I know this sounds like a job interview, but it’s really what I’m passionate about. Great, high quality leadership is one of the biggest drivers to make a difference for young folk. When we get leadership right we know the impact it has on young people, so it’s how we then nationally bring that coherence to make a difference, and that’s what’s really exciting about this job.”
The SCEL presented at the recent Scottish Learning Festival, and Hamilton was approached by a teacher who had been a big inspiration to her. “It was lovely. She had had a really big influence on me. She was my French teacher and she’d taught me over a number of years but I’d done sixth-year studies French and she was my teacher, and she’d come to hear me at the festival. I was able to introduce her to the chair of our board as one of the best teachers I’d ever had.” 
This teacher had inspired Hamilton through what would now be described as the Curriculum for Excellence, she says. “Lots of interaction, ways to be involved, and for a senior pupil a real care about what happened to you in the future, you know? Mentoring. She was fabulous.”
Hamilton’s work at the GTCS had prepared her well, she says. Leading the pilots of Professional Update and the revision of the standards has given her the opportunity to build up working relationships across Scotland. The increase in teacher ownership and responsibility embodied by that work can now be focused into leadership development, argues Hamilton. 
“Why a new organisation? Over the last ten years, I would say, there’s been a lot of really good work on leadership development in Scotland. A lot of our leadership practice is recognised nationally and internationally, but provision is still patchy. Sometimes access to programmes can be variable depending on where you live,” she says. 
Although the SCEL is based in Glasgow, it will be mobile, explains Hamilton. “We have one office. We’re not an enormous building. I’ve had a lot of interesting conversations about not being a college. Quite often people say what’s your new job? Like a college principal? No, it’s the different meaning,” she explains. The bulk of the work will take place in regional networks, not in the office. 
Leadership development is explicit across the revised GTCS teaching standards, which is a “big step forward”, according to Hamilton. 
“There’s a recognition nationally teachers are taking on leadership roles, they’re leaders right from the start of their careers. There’s some fabulous work. If you look at the universities and their initial teacher education and probationer programmes, early teachers are working as teacher leaders. Actually, when you look at a teacher working in a classroom with a group, or outside the classroom, they’re displaying leadership capacity daily. It’s not necessarily about early phase teachers taking on formal leadership roles, it’s recognising leadership development is a pathway.”
Hamilton is keen to stress SCEL is not set up to deliver leadership programmes, but to act as an umbrella body to coordinate, act as a hallmark of quality, and enable shared learning. She says the model is innovative and agile. “It’s about teacher ownership and teacher responsibility in this. You know, it’s the professional learning that will be accessed as the framework develops, teachers will be selecting and looking at that to help plan their PRD. It’s not the top-down model. That’s a system change.”
Hamilton hopes to build relationships with pre-existing teacher groups who are passionate and proactive about professional learning, including those on social media. A group approached her at the Scottish Learning Festival to be more engaged with SCEL. 
She says she has also contacted all local authorities in Scotland, “hoping to have met with them all before Christmas, because working with local authorities is crucial. It’s about being out there, having the conversations, encouraging the buy-in, and getting people to work with us.”
As well as exploring routes to headship through  a consultation which goes live this month on the SCEL website, the first project SCEL has embarked on is a fellowship programme which sees 11 headteachers from across Scotland pilot a co-constructed approach to continuous learning for headteachers. The participants have had access to national policymakers and have each piloted their own project in their respective schools, supported by a coach and an academic. They were selected because they were experienced, high-quality and high-credibility headteachers who could contribute to system change. Although the pilot is not finished until next year, the project will be rolled out next year, having taken on any feedback. Recruitment is already being planned for the next cohort. 
“I was speaking to one of our SCEL fellows, a secondary headteacher, and he was talking about the importance of being visible in your school. He’d been asking his pupils, ‘is it important that you see me about the school and at meetings?’ and one of his pupils said, ‘of course it is, sir, you’re like the school mascot.’ The visibility of a leader, I thought that was lovely. It maybe shows the different experience pupils have now. If you were to track down some of my former pupils, I’m hoping they wouldn’t describe me as a distant figure who they only saw at assembly, I’m hoping it would be a very different description. But who knows?”  

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