Subscribe to Holyrood updates

Newsletter sign-up


Follow us

Scotland’s fortnightly political & current affairs magazine


Subscribe to Holyrood
by Jim Thewliss
05 April 2017
Head teachers see themselves as servants of and leaders within their community

Head teachers see themselves as servants of and leaders within their community

Jim Thewliss - School Leaders Scotland

Discussion and debate around the role of the secondary head teacher in Scottish education has, as it does from time to time, come to the fore in recent months. 

Much of the discussion has been generated from two sources: firstly, the report commissioned by the Scottish Government on head teacher recruitment and secondly, the governance review.

The former makes clear the many challenges and disincentives existing within the system which individually and in combination have resulted in a serious recruitment challenge, with the number of applicants for head teacher posts dropping across the board. 

The latter shows an implicit trust and confidence in the head teacher’s ability to do what is best for the young people in her/his school community and is clear in its vision of empowering head teachers to make meaningful decisions within this context. 

The debate generated within and between these at times conflicting reports is a useful starting point from which to examine the role of the head teacher in 21st-century Scottish education.

While there has been much debate in relation to the effective operation of the system there has been, it would appear, a consensus on the value of schools serving their community through a system of comprehensive education. 

Head teachers see themselves very much as servants of and leaders within their community, and it is within this context that the opportunities and challenges which lie within the role of head teacher should be seen.

Tasks are varied, issues complex, and expectations wide and often unrealistic. While the quality of learning experienced by the young people who walk through the school door each and every morning (or from time to time choose not to), is front and centre of the head’s mind, the skill set required to achieve such quality is ever growing and increasingly complex.

Every head teacher takes up the post having demonstrated through interview that she/he has the skill set consistent with the criteria in the job specification, allied to the leadership potential appropriate to enable them to fulfil the job description. 

Looked at in that way, leading a school is beguilingly simple – an exercise in mechanics rather than the truly dynamic challenge which it invariably is. Leading the 21st-century secondary school places an individual at the centre of a complex matrix within which the variables constantly change and shift in their relative importance.

We expect our head teachers to have the vision to think and operate strategically as well as having the operational skills to ensure that the school meets the demands of its community on every day of the school year – and often the other days as well. The concept of ‘duty of care’, in its widest interpretation, lies at the core of what our head teachers do! 

All stakeholders in education have the right to have their entitlement fulfilled and their expectations met. The skill in being a head teacher is, however, in balancing the often-conflicting demands and unrealistic expectations of pupils, parents, teachers, local authorities, national politicians, HMIE… the list goes on. 

The promise that things will be much better in four years’ time to the parent of an S4 child will undoubtedly sharpen the focus on achieving a balance between long/short-term planning.

If children are to learn effectively their curriculum must be planned, coherent, progressive and relevant; they must be supported in and throughout their learning journey. The school must be a safe and efficiently functioning environment in which to learn and work, while the community from which they come must have confidence in all aspects of its school.

In creating and sustaining this living organism and making sure that it remains fit for purpose the head teacher is accountable to many audiences and in many ways. Whether it is an unhappy child, an angry parent, a distressed member of staff, HMIE or the local newspaper, each merits a considered response which must be both appropriate and proportionate. Sure-footedness and diplomacy are a stock in trade of the effective head teacher. 

In looking at this Gordian knot it is perhaps less than surprising that the number of hats thrown into the ring for head teachers’ positions is on the decline. Being a head teacher is undoubtedly a demanding but also an enormously stimulating and rewarding role and critically important to Scotland’s long-term social and economic wellbeing. 

The number of candidates presenting themselves for the Scottish College for Educational Leadership’s ‘Into Headship’ programme is encouraging in that it shows that there is an understanding of the challenges and a willingness to engage in preparation for the task ahead. 

Effective school leaders who have earned the right to lead learning in their community are essential to empowering teachers, parents and communities to achieve.

Holyrood Newsletters

Holyrood provides comprehensive coverage of Scottish politics, offering award-winning reporting and analysis: Subscribe



Get award-winning journalism delivered straight to your inbox

Get award-winning journalism delivered straight to your inbox


Popular reads
Back to top