March 2014


  • The state of independence
    Autonomy isn’t a new concept for schools and colleges but its success in the long-term depends on everyone being honest about what it means and costs, as well as the provision of safeguards for schools and colleges that get into difficulty, says Brian Lightman. More
  • Be prepared
    Leora Cruddas suggests some key activities for schools and colleges to undertake ahead of changes to the curriculum, assessment and qualifications. More
  • Premium: Make it pay
    The Pupil Premium gives us a huge opportunity to change for the better the lives of poor and disadvantaged young people, says John Dunford. We need to exploit it to the full. More
  • A head for heights?
    The profession needs more outstanding heads but they won’t materialise unless we ensure that teachers can access top-quality development from the moment that they set foot on the career ladder, argues Ian Bauckham. It is up to leaders to seize the initiative. More
  • Meaningful dialogue
    Better parent-school relationships can have a profound impact on pupil attainment, particularly for those in disadvantaged and vulnerable groups, says Professor Sonia Blandford. More
  • Widening the leadership horizon
    Today’s young people are the leaders of tomorrow. We need to help them understand the world beyond theirs and how their lives and roles overlap with other communities, or tensions will continue to arise when cultures collide, says Ken Swan. More
Bookmark and Share

Today’s young people are the leaders of tomorrow. We need to help them understand the world beyond theirs and how their lives and roles overlap with other communities, or tensions will continue to arise when cultures collide, says Ken Swan.

Widening the leadership horizon

As educators, we are responsible for preparing the children of a society to be effective citizens. There are few more important responsibilities.

It wasn’t that long ago that this responsibility was contained within a community, defined by a village, town or shire boundary. Then, it was a relatively simple task for educators to teach children the knowledge and skills needed to live within that community, that culture. It was also relatively simple to prepare young people for leadership within that community, because the key responsibility of leaders was to preserve that community’s cultural values and beliefs. Their perspective was always the ‘right’ perspective’; their way, developed over centuries, was always the ‘right’ way.

The world is a far different place now. Globalisation has forced new ways of thinking and relating. Communities, and cultures, are connected like never before. With access to a computer or television, we can read, watch and listen to the news of any event anywhere in the world.

This is wonderful, in one sense, but it has presented an immense challenge for educators as we try to move curricula from a solely local community orientation to an orientation that builds student awareness of the community perspectives of people from distant countries and cultures, while at the same time preserving local perspectives.

And with the movement of people from other cultures into your community, intercultural awareness is being raised locally every day.

It is a challenge that most education systems are trying to meet.

Building culturally aware leaders

The United Nations Alliance of Civilizations (UNAOC) recently reported that “Three-quarters of the world’s major conflicts have a cultural dimension” (

The finding is alarming, but not surprising, and there is an argument that our education systems have played a part in fanning these conflicts. If we are teaching to a curriculum that projects and protects the values and beliefs of a culture, without building ‘awareness’, ‘appreciation’ and ‘understanding’ of other cultures, then it is difficult to deny that our education systems have previously contributed to the high level of cultural conflict across the world.

There is also a view that the world’s ‘major’ conflicts are led by people who have come through our education systems. These leaders were students in our schools 10, 20, 30 or more years ago. They were students who probably developed their initial knowledge and understanding of leadership in the school setting.

  • What were they taught by educators previously, explicitly or subliminally?
  • Were they taught that leaders win?
  • Were they taught that the great leaders of history conquered others?
  • Were they taught that leaders possessed certain qualities often attributed to military or political leaders?
  • Were they taught that leaders are born, not made?
  • Were they taught that leaders must protect their culture at any cost?
  • What are students being taught in schools today , explicitly or subliminally that could inform their leadership actions in the future – actions that may reduce intercultural conflict in the years ahead?
  • How will students in our schools today be perceived as leaders in 10, 20, 30 years from now? What are they learning about leadership now that will stay with them throughout their life?

The leadership lens

My view is that education systems have a responsibility to contribute towards the development of citizens who have initial awareness, knowledge and skills in leadership. This means more than having students select peer representatives for a council, undertaking community service projects, winning a contest or creating entrepreneurial initiatives; there must also be a an explicit cognitive element.

Schools are the only formal educative setting where our young people actually have opportunities to learn about leadership in a safe and managed manner.

Recently, I shared stories of leadership, provided by students from various cultures and sub-cultures within education systems, at the convention of the International Confederation of Principals (ICP). They included:

Charles, 15, United States

I have always wanted to do something that allows me to make a difference. Being a part of Greening Forward [a global environmental group led by young people] and seeing the huge impact we are making is certainly motivating. I truly could not see myself doing anything else. Moreover, I get to work with some of the most amazing people in the world – young change-makers.

My ideas have been dismissed many times simply because of my age. I encourage adults to authentically listen to the ideas of young people, challenge them, and offer opportunities for them to be engaged in positive activities that matter to them.

Juan, 17, Uruguay

I knew I still needed more skills to be an effective leader to continue working in all the community projects I had in mind. And there was one I specially lacked, public speaking!

Think of a leader, any leader you want. Picture them delivering a speech in front of a massive audience. What makes them a leader, apart from their ideas? The way the audience is motivated and inspired by the words spoken. Most will be deeply touched and maybe even shed a tear.

Such a reaction may be a response to inspirational leaders when they transmit ideals, but I knew that if I did not improve my speaking skills, I would not be able to transmit my ideals and projects to others to make this world a better place.

These and other stories by students in both primary and secondary education are free to download from the Leaders in School website ( They show how our students have a great capacity to think deeply about issues and about their own place in the world. They highlight key leadership concepts that they share – overcoming discrimination, cultural restrictions, women’s rights, freedom, making a difference, perceptions of the disabled, the need to motivate, sharing decision-making, cultures of unity, and service learning for all.

These students are ‘leading’ already, but they deserve the opportunity to have their leadership knowledge and skills developed. One way of doing this is by making sure that they are reading, discussing and reflecting on the views of students from other cultures, from other parts of the world.

Future leaders, today’s education

For me there is a key question that comes from the UNAOC research: How can we as educators contribute to significantly reducing world intercultural conflict in the near future?

I do not know the answer. I do know that this year’s school leavers will be in their late 20s in ten years’ time, and will be in their late 30s in twenty years’ time. They will be:

  • living within communities that will be increasingly connected globally
  • raising children and concerned for their future
  • working for companies or organisations with colleagues from various cultures that may serve the communities of various cultures
  • proud of their cultural background
  • voting for people as political leaders
  • choosing to take the lead where action is needed
  • supporting others to lead where others have more awareness, knowledge or skills
  • we hope, educated by teachers committed to helping today’s students understand some initial leadership concepts

I also know that organisations such as the United Nations (UN) place great emphasis on supporting youth to become well-informed, knowledgeable and skilled future leaders. I encourage school systems to accept responsibility here as well.

School systems reach across all communities; while there will be cultural differences across systems, they will all strive to prepare students for an increasingly multicultural society.

Students should participate in leadership discussions, analysis and activities that build their future capacity to either lead or choose responsible and effective leaders in the future.

If we, as educators, cannot guide students today to become aware, knowledgeable and skilled in leadership concepts, then who will guide them? They may never get another opportunity.

  • Ken Swan is Director, Leaders in School, Australia, and founder of Student Leaders International, a free e-zine on student leadership. Contact Ken at