Forget Little Big Master: Hong Kong headteachers can't save schools alone

PUBLISHED : Monday, 25 May, 2015, 6:06am
UPDATED : Monday, 25 May, 2015, 6:06am

Recently, I saw a local film called Little Big Master, which is about a school headmistress who goes to a remote area out of love for kids to revive a dying kindergarten.

Although the film is not meant to be a blockbuster, many viewers have been touched by it, including some top government officials. I think people are touched by the generous and resilient spirit displayed by the headmistress - a real-life heroine in Hong Kong.

The film portrays her as having a genuine love of children and an undaunted determination to save the school. The suggestion is that if you can find the right head, all school problems will be resolved.

However, such reasoning ignores systemic or structural problems that can threaten a school's survival. The reality in Hong Kong's school system is that because of a sharp decline in the school-age population, schools failing to achieve a sufficient student intake will face closure.

Those which operate in ageing or remote communities will be the first casualties in these circumstances. Even the threat of closure itself can lead to school heads, teachers, and even students leaving for greener pastures, resulting in a downward spiral. Without enough, and the right, people, the decline can accelerate.

What the film extols is what some term "turnaround leadership". We can examine what constitutes this. Charisma is definitely a vital element. Charisma may be inbuilt, but it comes from a combination of vision, commitment, optimism, diligence, resilience, modelling, passion for education and love for students clearly displayed by the leader.

Turnaround leadership also demands a different skill set. Such leaders are able to visualise an alternative future for the failing school and restore students to the centre of the school's focus as a basic value.

The ability to motivate and mobilise people is a much-valued skill, too. It is through persuasion rather than coercion, recognition rather than blame, affirmation rather than accusation, and collaboration rather than instruction that people are willing to stick with the leader even when the going is tough.

Relationship-, community- and capacity-building skills are indispensable in fostering a generative culture. Turnaround leaders have to get the priorities for school development right once in office and also realise that change in the school needs to be seen to be done.

Therefore, they may first resort to the easiest thing, such as starting with a facelift for the school or adding much-needed facilities or amenities to the campus to serve the students' needs.

Tailoring the school's curriculum to make it more relevant and interesting to students as well as providing necessary or better pastoral care is another sure-fire remedy for school lethargy.

The will and skill to win outside support for the school adds to the charisma of the leader and increases the chance of the school's survival. Although visionary, the leader must be content with small gains and successes and look for them to substantiate the dream he is striving for, get the doubters on board and spur further efforts for school change.

Thinking big, starting small and sustaining the proven is how they act.

Such high-calibre leaders can achieve little if there is scant systemic support to help them turn schools around. The education authorities need to diligently find niches for such schools to survive and sustain development as they bounce back from the bottom. There should be more yardsticks to measure school effectiveness than mere academic success.

There are, in fact, many schools in Hong Kong that need turning around. The authorities should find ways to do it for the sake of educational equity and the common good.

Robin Cheung is a retired school principal