Leadership programme

Rethinking Leadership for Human Flourishing

Valerie Hannon


The Innovation Unit

It is fantastic that Rethinking Leadership (RL) has opened up the debate about the future of education leadership for an English audience. There is scarcely any debate on this issue currently; understandable perhaps, in the context of so many pressing problems assailing the system – from chronic underfunding, to teacher recruitment/retention, to growing levels of student absenteeism linked to alarming mental health statistics.

Yet part of the solution to these problems must of course lie within the quality of our leadership – whether at the political, system, institution or classroom level. The best systems in the world give careful, thoughtful attention to how the best possible leadership is nurtured and developed. From a position where we led the world – with the much-copied National College for School Leadership established in 2000 – generating new approaches and pathways, we are now in a position where the NPQ suite, ‘delivered’ by a wide range of providers of variable quality, is supposed to do the job. It is not enough, and the paper just published by RL demonstrates why.

What Else? What Next? What If? sets out sharply the key questions: what else is needed beyond the ‘old’ leadership curriculum (noting this is a both/and, not either/or). The paper rightly in my view picks up on issues such as leadership for well-being; and for equity, diversity and inclusion; for systems thinking (‘wicked problems’); and for uncertain and turbulent futures.

As for What next? The RL paper sensibly outlines the kind of review that, hopefully, an incoming government would see as timely. It would cover issues more profound than those of mere ‘delivery’. These include the new roles of leaders in the context we face; the kinds of learning outcomes we should expect from development programmes; reconsideration of content and form, drawing upon international exemplars and emergent practice.

The What if? section of the paper suggests that a collaborative group convening under the auspices of RL might continue to build the vision, seed new practice and support innovation. I warmly support this initiative and suggest that leveraging the international dimension might be a useful strategy at this point. Other than its focus on PISA results, the English policy horizon has become too parochial: looking at what is happening elsewhere would both encourage and embolden new thinking in this space.

One example is the new OECD programme called Education for Human Flourishing in which a group of the high performing (in PISA terms) systems have come together (at Director General level) to reassess the very foundations of education today – foundations which lay buried in Human Capital Theory. Systems such as Finland, Estonia, Singapore and British Columbia are asking: is it not time to reorient more holistically to a vision of thriving, adequate to the times we inhabit? A vision that centres on how young people learn to care for planet, people and self. The program is drawing upon scholarship, research, innovation in the jurisdictions, and also thought leadership to map out what such a new purpose for education would look like. This is not a mere abstraction: there are systems and schools (including in this country) who are setting this new purpose as their guiding compass. The work is on to flesh out what this is starting to look like in practice; and what more is needed.

In this context, I was asked to review existing competency and professional development frameworks for education leadership across the world; and then to propose the new competencies that are needed if human flourishing is seriously to be adopted as our goal. (NB: ‘competency’ in this context refers to the blend of knowledge+skills+values+attitudes or KSVA). The resulting paper, discussed this January in Vancouver by the Directors General of the participating systems (as well as the International Baccalaureate Organisation) is called Towards an Education Workforce Dedicated to Human Flourishing and it will be published widely in March 2024 (watch this space). What is interesting here though is the degree of congruence with the thinking behind RL’s work.

Coming at it from the perspective of our future needs, I argue that there is a set of competencies not even touched on in the NPQ frame that leaders around the world are now taking seriously. They include:

  • The capacity to craft a new narrative, a new compelling vision, for education predicated on our need to think seriously about how we all thrive – including our responsibilities to the planet and other species. This is about rebooting purpose through leaders as storytellers.
  • The capacity to orchestrate resources for learning from many sources in the community: not just parents; but business, the creative sector, entrepreneurs… This is about creating an education eco-system.
  • Leaders as champions of equity, diversity and inclusion as never before. The knowledge +skills + values + attitudes are now more sophisticated and nuanced. They are learnable, and they are essential for thriving communities
  • Systems thinking: the capacity to make connections, to understand complex causality and dynamic change; and capable thereby of greater flexibility and dynamism
  • And finally, leading innovation (not just managing change). Do we think we have come to the end of developing effective practice? Hardly. Therefore, leaders with the capacity to engage their institutions in disciplined, responsible innovation, alongside other partners, is essential for improvement.

There are example of professional development that address the above competencies all over the world in successful jurisdictions. It’s not just abstraction.

The alignment between these proposals and the argument set out in the RL paper is obvious. Hopefully these strands of work can combine in powerful ways in the future.

Valerie Hannon was Director of Education for Derbyshire, co-founder of the Innovation Unit, and author of THRIVE: the new purpose of Schools in a Changing World (Cambridge University Press 2021)

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