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Building Leadership for Change - a reflective statement

A Saudi school leader’s perspectives on the Building Leadership for Change programme through school immersion at UCL Institute of Education (IOE).

Khalil Alharbi, PhD., Educational Leadership and Administration
School Principal 
Medina, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia

Formal education plays an important role in school leadership, but it is not enough in today’s world to lead a high-quality education system. This is true particularly in the context of Saudi Arabia as the country aims to bring major reforms through its Vision 2030 to achieve excellence by making the country a knowledge-based society. Knowing the importance education plays in a knowledge-based society, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia puts the education sector as one of the main pillars of its Vision 2030. To implement the pillar on education, the Ministry of Education is engaged in major reforms including preparing Saudi educational leaders for leadership change through school immersion in collaboration with universities in the United States of America, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, and Australia.

The programme aims to provide Saudi school educators with theoretical and practical knowledge and skills to lead Saudi schools according to national and international standards. Four groups of Saudi educators were selected to join the programme: school principals, counsellors, English language teachers, and non-English Language teachers.

The Ministry of Education’s objective is to prepare Saudi school leaders to be able to effectively manage school functions, play a role in instructional leadership, use data to support learning and improvements, create a conducive learning environment, evaluate teachers and programs effectively, communicate with constituents and build school networks including working with colleagues, teachers, students’ parents, and the community.

I was one of the fortunate school principals selected to join a one-year theoretical and practical knowledge and skills programme on building leadership for change at the UCL Institute of Education (IOE) in London. I came to the programme with a bachelor’s degree in English and a PhD and a master’s degree in educational leadership and administration from Taibah University. I have 19 years of experience in Saudi public schools. First, as an English classroom teacher, assistant school principal, and then school principal for the last 16 years. Therefore, I have first-hand experience and knowledge about the educational challenges facing Saudi schools.

At the IOE, the immersion programme consisted of two parts – the theoretical part at the Institute and the practical part in public schools.

For the theoretical part, the Institute developed four modules that are essential in building leadership for change: school leadership and management; developing teaching and learning, curriculum and assessment; leading professional learning development and; leading change and improvement.

In module 1, participants got a chance to learn and compare different leadership styles that are necessary for leading schools effectively. In addition to the leadership styles, participants learn how to set up a clear vision. This point was particularly important for participants. In Saudi Arabia, many schools have strategic plans that include school vision and mission; unfortunately, these strategic plans were made for all schools with same goals. Therefore, implementation was difficult as they did not know based on what the visions of their schools were built on. In module 2, we learned the key roles of school leaders in teaching and learning. The focus in this module were the summative and formative assessment, how to differentiate learning to meet the needs of diverse learners. In module 3, we worked on the types of professional development including the importance of a school leader in continuing professional development. We also learned how to use coaching, peer-to-peer observation, training, and school to school support. In the last module, we learned the challenges facing school leaders in bringing change. Instructors shared with participants how to bring a real change and how to deal with reluctant to change.

For the practical part of the programme involving school immersion, I conducted my practical training in one of England's many primary and secondary schools. As each school and leader faces different challenges in leading their school, the head at one placement school shared with me the approach he used to bring change in his school. There were challenges but through his distributive leadership, he was able to bring change in the school by involving everyone – students, teachers, families, and the community. As change does not happen without challenges, he shared his experiences with teachers and their feelings about using distributive leadership to achieve a common goal.

At another placement school, the school leader shared his experiences in developing a school improvement plan. His goals were to enable teachers to collaborate and have what they need in order to be successful. The main challenges he faced were related to funds and time for professional development. Going through the school immersion helped me to see the connection between the theoretical parts we received at the Institute and how school leaders apply them in practice.

There are a few similarities and a lot of differences between Saudi schools and the UK schools I visited. In terms of similarities, the job responsibilities are somewhat similar but a lot of differences in leaders’ characteristics and the way to carry out responsibilities. The difference is that in UK schools, leaders have the knowledge and training necessary to overcome obstacles; they also have the autonomy to lead their schools. In Saudi Arabia, education is centralised. School leaders are selected among teachers who do not have prior leadership background or training before being appointed. After being selected as a school leader, he or she receives a short period on induction in leadership involving workshops, sometimes, that are necessarily related to the day-to-day leading schools for success. Another difference I noticed is the connection between the contents of the training modules we received at the Institute and their practical relevance in schools; which is not always the case in Saudi Arabia.

To remedy these deficiencies, the Ministry of Education is taking steps to gradually grant autonomy to schools. However, giving autonomy to school leaders, need to make sure that they have the core competencies in leading to achieve the expected outcomes. Therefore, this school immersion program must be appreciated and supported to help achieve the desired education reform in Saudi Arabia.

The training I have received in London through the Building Leadership for Change programme has given me the opportunity to see how school leaders are trained and functions in their schools in the UK. Based on what I have learned through this programme and my 19 years' experience in Saudi public schools, I would like to put forward the following recommendations:

  • That the immersion programme and its beneficiaries continue to be supported to benefit all Saudi school leaders and their schools. As highlighted in the above modules that we received in London, it is essential that school leaders be equipped with the knowledge and skills necessary in order to successfully lead their schools. One cannot teach or lead what they do not know.
  • That the educational authority grants progressive autonomy to schools and their leaders, considering the selected leaders have the competencies and leadership needed to lead their schools for better, not worse.
  • That schools and their leaders be encouraged to work with students’ parents and the community. 
  • Encourage and facilitate school collaboration locally, nationally, and internationally.