The next 5 years: five key opportunities for school leaders

There’s no question that school leaders will face tough challenges in the coming years. But there is also a major opportunity to reshape the school system. This blog, the second based on my London Centre for Leadership in Learning lecture on 19 May, should be read alongside the slides to be found here http://www.lcll.org.uk/event-resources.html.

The nature of the challenges is such that it is not possible for schools and their leaders to manage them alone. They will have to collaborate – whether that builds on what they are doing at the moment or takes them into new territory. Collaboration at both a local and system level provides school leaders with the opportunity to:

  • remodel how we train teachers – using the outcome from the work being led by Stephen Munday there is the chance to reimagine how initial teacher training is delivered. Instead of trying to cram everything into one year with variable development support thereafter, the new model would be structured over the existing first three years of a teacher’s career (their training year, NQT year and NQT +1 year). This would provide time to deliver the new core training content, which should include necessary subject and pedagogical knowledge, classroom skills and the acquisition and practice of research/learning impact skills. Although new teachers would, as now, be ‘employed’ at the end of year 1, their placements might continue over the three years and qualified teacher status would be awarded at the end of year 3. Universities and accredited school groups would work together to organise recruitment and training in each sub-region and routes into teaching would be rationalised.
  • redefine professional development – learning from the improving teacher style programmes, the growth of coaching and the action research focus of many teaching school alliances (TSAs) has shown the power and potential of combining formal learning with modelling, analysing and improving practice in the classroom. This needs to become the universal professional development template for the future. Teachers within and across schools would draw on what we know through insets, online research, reading groups and master classes, and would then work together to improve teaching in the classroom using lesson study, peer coaching, action research (involving pupils in many cases) and online forums. They would be constantly looking to assess the impact of their work together to establish new knowledge and improve outcomes. It is this approach that should form the core agenda for the College of Teaching to champion.
  • recast leadership of learning so that we explicitly acknowledge and encourage the role of school leaders in leading learning between schools and across the system as well as leading learning within their schools;
  • build a leadership pipeline using school groups as the basis for deploying school leaders to different leadership assignments as a way of accelerating their development – supported by leadership programmes run under the aegis of a sector-led Education Leadership Foundation;
  • use resources more productively. Partnerships and multi-academy trusts bring a huge potential for schools to improve their efficiency. They provide the basis for sharing posts and roles – particularly at leadership level and in specialist areas. Either through jointly delivering or procuring services they can use economies of scale to make savings in how HR, education welfare, grounds maintenance, catering, ICT and other services are provided. And groups of schools have the financial clout to employ high level financial and business management expertise to help them plan budgets and identify areas for savings.

So, the next five years offer exciting opportunities for collaboration to make a reality of school-led improvement across the system. However, if a collaborative approach is to deliver these outcomes then school leaders will need to adopt the habits and implement the disciplines of effective partnership. For example, school groups will need to understand scale and how to use small clusters led by executive leaders to realise the value that deep partnership can bring. They will need to link clusters to the resources, expertise and learning available through a TSA, federation and/or academy chain.

Effective collaboration involves hard accountability – structures and systems for holding each school to account for progress and performance and measures for assessing the impact of partnership activity. Governance of TSAs and academy trusts must be clearly structured and populated with able people who understand their role – whether that is at school or a wider partnership level – and who are supported in carrying it out. Achieving a balance between hierarchy and networking is another vital discipline; chains need to avoid erring on the side of hierarchy and TSAs need to make sure they do not just rely on networking.

The next five years could and should see a move towards all schools being part of a local school improvement cluster. Ideally there will be a diversity of structural models – no ‘one size fits all’. In some areas this approach is already well under way and in others it needs kick-starting or nurturing. School groups need to be steered and supported along a path to become mature and capable hubs of improvement. In due course all school improvement groups might be accredited.

Some will interpret a self-improving system as implying there is no need for local authorities or regional schools commissioners. That is naïve – and at variance with how things tend to work in high performing education systems. We need a means to ensure that there is a shared vision for improving education in each area, that every child has a school place, that the needs of vulnerable children are looked after, that no school gets left behind or left out of being part of a school improvement group, that schools are challenged to work together effectively, that weak or declining performance is quickly identified and corrected, that data and knowledge are moved across schools and that there is accountability to local communities.

In a self-improving system the issue is not the existence of some form of middle tier but creating the right culture to make it successful, by employing leaders with high-level people skills to key positions and working with and using school leaders to help carry out its roles. And it should be one system for all schools in an area – not one for academies and one for maintained schools.

So individual schools would be part of a local cluster, that in turn was part of a TSA or multi-academy trust, that in turn was part of a sub-regional system for recruiting and training teachers and developing leaders. This approach could yield a rich harvest: more even rates of improvement, a sustainable model of school leadership and improvement, a better equipped and developed workforce, a rebalancing of the inspection system so that it focused more on development and less on grading and school leaders playing a major role in shaping and running the education system.

Are schools leaders confident enough to drive this agenda? Or will they wait to be told what to do?

Are school leaders sufficiently committed to working with each other to improve the system? Or will they, along with the leaders of multi-academy trusts, retreat into competing baronies as financial constraints bite and they vie for pupils and teachers?

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