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Feature Article of Saturday, 17 March 2012

Columnist: Zubeviel, Thomas

Improving Educational Outcomes: The Leadership Imperative

Leadership has been identified as a critical ingredient for success in most human endeavours since it “acts as a catalyst without which other good things are unlikely to happen”. Leadership can and does make a difference between developed and developing countries, buoyant and stagnant economies, successful and unsuccessful businesses or institutions et cetera. Leadership is usually blamed if things go wrong in a country, organisations and institutions - private or public. The role of leadership in making things happen has gained acceptance by most people.
In educational institutions, school leadership has been identified as “second only to classroom teaching as an influence on pupil learning” according to the National College of School Leadership (NCSL), UK. The impact of school leadership on student outcomes is well documented in research findings in the United States and other parts of Europe and Africa. Despite charges of inconclusiveness of research findings on the impact of school leadership on the outcome of schooling as well as contextual issues being raised, there is a general consensus among researchers that school leadership does have an impact on student outcomes and improving learning environment.
Nevertheless, the term is one of the many fluid terms that does not lend itself to a single water-tight definition. Attempts to define the concept seem to have been focused on distinguishing leadership from management. For example, some experts argue that "managers are people who do things right and leaders are people who do the right things" while others conceptualise managers as “transactors” and leaders as “transformers”. Leadership is “influencing others” actions to achieve desirable ends. Leaders are people who “shape the goals, motivation and actions of others”, in Cuban’s view. Despite the attempts to create distinctions between the two concepts, the truth is that the functions and roles of managers and leaders overlapped and may mean one and the same role depending on the context. Indeed, there has not been a head teacher who has been effective by either managing or leading alone. A combination of the two yields better outcomes. This opinion is supported by other intellectuals who indicate that, “in addition to being accomplished administrators who develop and implement sound policies, procedures, and practices, effective administrators are also leaders who shape the school's culture by creating and articulating a vision, winning support for it, and inspiring others to attain it".
Given the above operational definition, it is easy to categorize Principals and Head teachers as school leaders. However, heads of educational institutions in Ghana are perceived to be engaged in more of the management function than leadership roles basically due to the centrally controlled nature of our educational system. Head teachers are seen mostly ensuring that government policies are implemented to the letter and some of them have gained notoriety for being so rigid to the extent they do not even give such policies their own thoughts. It is not wrong in principle to facilitate the implementation of government policies but in order to be effective, it is important that head teachers are able to re-engineer broader national vision for education embodied in the policy documents and syllabi at the school level to make it precise, specific and more meaningful at the school level. The good head teacher should be able to invite both staff and students to share in the wider national goals for education through school level goals.
In some countries individuals who aspire to be school heads must be trained specifically for the position. In Ghana head teachers are either appointed or rise to such positions by virtue of long service while some become head teachers because they are the most senior persons in the school or the only trained teacher in that school. According to researchers, no conscious efforts are made to prepare teachers either by way of special educational qualification or some form of induction and initiation into such professional roles. Given the pivotal role that head teachers occupy in the development of the human resource base of the country, one would have thought that the issue of who runs the affairs of all educational institutions in Ghana be taken very seriously. It is evident that despite what Steven Tonah describes as the “unending cycle” of educational reforms and interventions in the country none of the reform initiatives or intervention programmes looked at the issue of school leadership or gave it the seriousness it deserved. It is heart warming to hear that, according to Betty Mould Iddrisu, the former Minister of Education “we have now identified school leadership as a catalyst to bring about the needed change and results that we expect”. I think that realisation has come too late but if we are serious about the future of Ghana I will say “cooking late does not mean going to bed hungry”. Nevertheless, how serious can we ever be as a nation when we are still grappling with issues like: falling standards of education (whatever that means); gender equity in education, ensuring that only the best teachers teach at the primary level; a national re-orientation of the Ghanaian graduate’s mind towards self-employment and manual work; improvement in the conditions of service of teachers and reduction in the number of pupils per class which were identified as early as 1924?
Apart from the fact that head teachers are not adequately resourced to discharge their duties in the manner that we expect them to, we have allowed some unexamined conceptualisation of leadership to influence the choice of who becomes head teacher. There is no basis whatsoever that competence on the job as a head teacher depends on the quantity of gray hair one has or the degree of baldness one has attained. Experience is certainly important in most jobs but why do we look for experience in the number of years alone and not educational experiences or what we prefer to call educational qualifications as well? We have made the post of head teacher the preserve of the elderly to the extent that some of them have become square pegs in round holes given the level of technological advancement and rapidity of change in this globalised world. Most newly trained teachers go to their first posts with a lot of energy and ideas to improve learning. However, by the time they get the opportunity to implement those ideas, they have lost the energy and the motivation due to frustrations from the system. Sometimes we forget that what is needed to succeed in the rapidly changing global world of information is not age but rather up to date knowledge and being abreast with current know how in any field of human endeavour. The role of head teachers is becoming increasingly complex and demand competencies in a diversity of areas rather than just the number of years one has served after college. For instance, it takes more than just years of experience to be able to recruit or get teachers posted to your school as the case may be, retain these teachers, motivate them to give off their best as well as motivate students to achieve desirable educational outcomes. I recall Rev. Sister Elvira who was able to produce excellent results in a rural school of Ko “B” Junior High School by virtue of her leadership acumen. She was able to recruit and retain enough teachers in her school despite the fact that most teachers posted to the Upper West Region fled because of poor environmental and other conditions. In the Basic Education Certificate Examinations in 1995 three students including a girl scored aggregate 6 but since she left in 1997 no student from that school has scored above aggregate 15. I am sure there are many such illustrious, innovative, dynamic and forward looking head teachers all over Ghana. Therefore, with the requisite training and dissemination of information from both research and practice many more such results could be replicated across the country.
Recommendations
One of the major challenges of head teachers in Ghana is the limited authority and control they have over their jobs. The Head Teachers’ handbook prescribes in detail what head teachers are supposed to do and how they should go about doing it. That handbook is not a guide as some people will want us to believe but a diagnostic and prescription book for head teachers. They have no control over curriculum, instructions and even staff motivation as everything is decided by and from headquarters. It is like taking your case to a legal practitioner and giving him/her guidelines as to how to defend your case. The position of the head teacher should be regarded as a professional role and head teachers should therefore be given the needed autonomy and authority to discharge it.
Secondly, the expansion of some schools in response to increasing demand is making the position of head teacher leadership oriented. The fact that some head teachers now have two assistants – one for academic affairs and the other for administration – attests to this. The head teacher has to be able to lead an increasingly qualified and well informed and professional human resource base than before. Knowledge of procurement, planning, negotiation and Information Communications Technology are increasing becoming part of the repertoire of skills a head teacher should have. Therefore, years of teaching experience alone may not be adequate unless that is garnished with proper training and induction through which one becomes deeply immersed in the techniques and competencies required of such an office to forestall bullying by staff.
Finally, course modules on school leadership, school improvement and school effectiveness should be included in the training college syllabi to abreast teacher trainees with such topics to improve their practice. An annual School Leadership Workshop could be organised or School Leadership Training Centres can be established in the various regions to foster the dissemination of information on research and practice. In fact, these do not need to be structures but any of the existing educational institutions could be used as centres for the mean time. In the long term government could consider establishing a National Training College for School Leaders to train and empower prospective head teachers to deliver the educational outcomes that we badly need. Again, this could start of as a department in any of the existing Universities and later moved to a permanent site.
We have engaged in curriculum, pedagogical and structural reforms without considering one of the critical ingredients for success - school leadership. Leadership may not be the magic wand to turn around the dwindling fortunes of our educational sector but it will give it the needed direction and impetus.
PS: references have been removed to facilitate make it reader friendly. I have however put into quotes all borrowed expressions.
Zubeviel Thomas
Manchester, UK
tiervella@yahoo.co.uk

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