It takes a village, not an academy to teach a child

As an election pledge, Labor announced in February and then re-announced last week that it would establish a ‘National Principals’ Academy’ in an effort to have ‘the best school system in the world’. While there are a whole range of issues here that need to be addressed, we always welcome greater focus on the important work of leading schools in today’s world. What is disappointing and predictable is that the marketplace is already littered with those who are providing specialist training for leaders.

That Labor has called this an ‘Academy’ reinforces a reductionist view where people need to be ‘trained’ up. Leadership is about learning and continuous learning at that. We know that good leadership is not pinned to who leads but how it is enacted day by day.

Then there’s the issue of who will vet courses and how they are to be evaluated (which measures and benchmarks). We already have a plethora of leadership courses run through organisations and institutions such as Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL), Australian Council for Educational Leaders (ACEL), Australian College of Educators (ACE) as well as those offered by the universities, the various principal associations (primary and secondary) along with courses accredited by NSW Educational Standards Authority (NESA). So what happens to the current providers of leadership courses when the National Academy opens its doors for business?

My inner critic says the Academy will be another one for the annals of failed policy designed for short-term political gain in a climate where comparisons of our education systems against other nations is generating fear and mistrust. But what is so disheartening in all of this is the failure of governments to think differently and deeply about educational policy in the context of societal, technological and cultural change. I don’t believe I’m alone judging by some of the replies to my recent comment on Twitter. Policies like these are simply reinventions of an industrial school wheel that end up costing millions and have little impact on learning and teaching.

Our first order of business is  to clarify for ourselves, and within our communities, the narrative we use to make sense of who we are and what we do. We must articulate our understanding of what it is that gives the work of education its own special character. This provides the basis for prioritising and planning; it inspires and informs expectations. Cultural leadership is needed in meeting this challenge. We need school leaders who are able to develop local educational cultures that are strong on reflection, shared purpose and academic and non-academic achievement.

The schools that are likely to survive in changing times are those that support a reflective culture. Such schools encourage the members of their communities to ask themselves important questions of purpose and intention, to collectively and individually seek new solutions to old and new problems.They are centres of inquiry, engaging in a never-ending quest for better ways to learn and teach. This reflective culture is, at heart, a culture of thoughtful change and improvement with the goal of knowing each and every learner within that community in order to assist them to move from what they currently know and can do, to what they need to know and do. Its leaders are able to name, with confidence, the values and expectations on which school life is conducted. They participate as learners and teachers within the community, sharing in the shaping of the narrative within which the whole community is responsible for the development of each learner.

There’s an old African saying, ‘It takes a village to raise a child’. Today we speak of a child learning in the context of a connected community in which parents, teachers and numerous community members and agencies work in collaborative partnership. It is not an academy, it is our village and it needs wise cultural leaders.

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