A Thought About...School Leadership

What do you think of when you hear the phrase ‘school leader’? A headteacher? A teacher? The head of a year group or subject? The person who makes sure that the catering is sorted for the day? The team who make sure the lights and heating work? There are many titles that reflect a leadership role in education today. This blog is a broad reflection on what I think makes the biggest difference. 

The name ‘school leaders’ means to me the collection of decision makers who affect a child’s education. Mostly, that means school leaders including everyone inside a school and some who are based outside. They all play a part. When a child sees a member of school staff outside of school whilst accompanying their parent in the supermarket, for example, they certainly still view that staff member (regardless of role) as a leader in their lives. Hence the typical embarrassed and fascinated [wow you have a real life and don’t live at school] reaction. Teachers lead learning, support staff lead on the administration of operational aspects of the school, headteachers steer the ship and rely on those above, who are leading them, to support and chart the course.  

I have always found this view of collective school leadership comforting. It means that while in the roles I have worked in, all of which have been challenging at times, I’ve never felt alone. It has meant that when working with folks in schools as a teacher and moving through to more recent roles, I have done my best to do so on an equal level. We may not have been doing the same jobs or had the same responsibilities, but we were all part of affecting children’s lives and so the value of our roles were the same.   

Schooling is all about trust. Parents trust teachers to improve their children’s life chances. Pupils trust school staff to keep them safe, prepare them to learn and get them ready as they become adults. Teachers trust their colleagues to pull in the same direction. Middle and senior leaders trust that decisions and actions will fundamentally result in their being able to achieve the school’s core purpose, and in doing so enable them and their teams to make a positive difference.  

I think that holding this view of school leadership, or some version of it, is liberating for those doing it. Not least because when it comes to making plans for the future and considering how to navigate the way forward, leaders can avoid feeling isolated. We’re all in this together and our motivation is helping children become the best version of themselves.  

That risk of isolation has been most obvious for me when writing summary reports on “impact”. How do you confidently write about the effects of a particular strategy when its implementation has been consistently hindered by something outside everyone’s control? The pandemic highlighted to me the huge challenge in proving causality in schools. Senior leaders can be made to or simply feel like they have to prove causality beyond reasonable doubt, despite knowing full well the range of factors that influence children’s daily learning, even without Covid-19. How do we know that a particular strategy, aimed at improving pupils’ learning, behaviour or personal development, actually worked and any change wasn’t down to some other influence? Working in the special school space made me appreciate much more than previously how important it is to evaluate on an individual’s level to ensure you don’t miss something vital to that child in amongst the “data”.  

Today, strategies published by the likes of the Education Endowment Foundation really help provide a steer because of the projection on likelihood of success for the estimated investment. But those recommended approaches are themselves sometimes based on incomplete information. A shared or distributed leadership approach means that summary evaluations of impact can at least become rich in diverse observations and other outcomes, making a collective evaluation more accurate even if it is somewhat broad ranging. 

School leaders face many challenges today, some of which we hear about in the media. Despite some issues being unwelcomed distractions, I believe that school leaders make the most profound difference to children’s lives when they focus their time and resources on children’s futures. Avoiding the distractions is hard, particularly when they can have such profound consequences. Managing the complex business demands of a modern school is tough in today’s political and economic climate. But at the end of it, the only things that children who attend schools want is to trust that they will experience a happy school day, in a safe environment, while learning interesting things that they can appreciate (or learn to) will help them in the future. School is an opportunity to build for the future and help support children now with whatever is going on in their lives.  

I’m a governor of a primary school – another type of leadership role and one of an increasing collection that aren’t typically based inside the school that they affect. I love being a governor because I feel like I am still able to make a small difference while supporting our staff to perform their roles. Being removed from the day-to-day management of schools is quite strange. The role generally provides real value to the school because of the wide range of backgrounds that governors come from. Having a career in education is helpful and so is having any other background, range of interests and vision of education. The mix means that we make decisions having considered a range of views drawn from the broad constitution of the school’s community. The mix of backgrounds means that evaluations of impact are viewed through a number of lenses, making for wide debate and a simultaneous simple focus on the one question that matters: are those children getting a good schooling? Within groups of schools where some governance roles are undertaken by executive leaders, there is the expertise that comes with experience to answer the same question.  

I question whether the current mix of community, foundation, voluntary aided, controlled, free, federation, standalone- and multi-academy trust, and independent schools and so on helps school leaders. Does the variety help the sector to make and implement consistently effective decisions based on those made at a national policy level?– the evidence points to no. Does the mix make things easier or harder, better or worse for parents when making decisions about which school(s) their children will attend? That’s a life defining decision, which from recent personal experience I know is made more challenging because the word ‘school’ might now mean something different to me in terms of who I go to with questions or if my child needs help. So, parents who understandably make decisions based on their experiences of school, have to now learn what the differences are. Does a local Ofsted rated Good academy (within a MAT) have better resources locally and across the group to give their children a better start in life than the local also Good rated local authority school? I don’t know the answer to that but I think that school leaders need to consider their answer. They must ensure that regardless of the noise swirling around the system, their work remains laser sharply focused on the children that turn up Monday to Friday, which I believe most do.  

School leadership is big and complex because it involves so many people with different skillsets, beliefs and experiences. Senior leadership has changed and is still changing because of the mix in the system and ongoing changes to accountability measures, exams and governance structures. But at the core of it must remain an unclouded focus on delivering a positive difference to children’s lives through collective leadership.  

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The School of the Future Guide is aimed at helping school leaders and teachers make informed choices when designing the learning environments of the future using existing and upcoming technologies, as they seek to prepare children for the rest of the 21st century – the result is a more efficient and competitive school.

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