This last week has been all about Principals. I have several great friends who are making their way in international education as school leaders and they have fantastic stories to tell. Because they are at the leading edge of this revolutionary growth in independent, international schooling.
Four such friends crossed my path this week, each on a unique journey and with so much to offer. It happens, in this instance, that all four were forged as headteachers in the UK during a period of school reform (from 1990 to 2010) that, I would argue, has given them a terrific skill set for the new wave of international schools.
These heads were brought up under ‘Local Management of Schools’. In other words, all the academic and operational responsibility – and 95% of the budget – fell to them rather than the local authority. They learned how to lead because they had to. They learned how to assess strengths and weaknesses with a withering eye. They learned how to plan and how to bind others into the plans. They learned prudence with their budgets. They learned how to put teaching and learning first. They learned the crucial role of data, expecially when it lets you track progress and give you an early warning that something is going offline.
These are the skills they are now carrying abroad. The UK has a very good curriculum (made better by being well documented and organised) and an even stronger pedagogical tradition. Armed with their experience, these headteachers can quickly become powerful international leaders.
Not that the transition is so very easy. But what I love about my four friends this week is that they are making it look easy. Three of them are former primary heads; one of them took an interim step and isn’t yet a Principal but will soon be there.
What they are doing, above all else, is to carry with them very high standards and expectations. Of the students. Of the staff. Of the community. And of themselves. They have the skills to live up to these expectattions. They aren’t afraid of telling people the truth about quality and about the importance of ‘students being first’. They are happy to find the strengths in people but – equally – they aren’t afraid to move on staff who are not up to the job. They know where they should spend their time, so that their leadership has most impact, and they know how they have to walk the talk, day in and day out, or lose their credibility.
They know how to ‘go first’, which is the simple Scottish dictionary definition of what leadership means.
There are new things for them to learn. They lose all that paraphernalia of governance that is the UK model; it is far too cumbersome. But they have to learn how to manage their owners and, perhaps, a local director or two. They have to win the confidence of their investors to let them control and optimise their budgets. They have to learn how to build a constructive dialogue with parents who pay for their child’s education. They have to build a Professional Development culture when the school is more isolated than they are used to. They have to come to see that the offering of private schooling is an essential part of the international scene because governments do not usually school their expats; someone has to. And very often, private providers do the job with just as caring an approach as any western government school.
Whisper this carefully. Very often the private providers do the job better and at a lower comparative price!
I have nothing but respect for these heads and Principals. They have an incredible job to do, holding together a disparate group of people, binding them with values and clear goals, reinforcing them with quality and strength, creating momentum, and modelling for them the way to be. It is incredibly enjoyable to have the opportunity to work alongside them, to support them where we can, and to keep feeding their appetite for improvement, year on year.
I can only see more people making this journey. My four friends will make marvellous guides and I hope I can capture a bit more of their individual stories over the next couple of years.