Leadership isn’t just a case of a strong headteacher or senior leadership team. If schools are going to fully realise their ambitions, leadership has to run through the core of the organisation and involve professionals at every level.
Schools that take this approach have a number of key characteristics. They give teachers freedom to learn from and with each other, use performance management systems focused on personal professional growth, and develop structures and systems that allow every member of staff to make a direct contribution to school improvement.
But this isn’t happening in every school. Barriers include a fragmented education system and the persistence of a strong tradition of top-down decision-making, perhaps reinforced by the current inspection regime. This creates accountability pressures which can, in the words of the Teacher Development Trust, shape and distort the professional development of school leaders.
The question of how schools overcome these challenges and empower all staff to play a part in school improvement was the subject of a recent roundtable discussion at the Institute of Education (IoE).
Secondary and primary school leaders and leadership experts from across the world of education took part in a wide-ranging discussion which resulted in a White Paper containing policy recommendations for overcoming those challenges.
Here, I list the recommendations, together with a selection of contributions from delegates.
Recommendation one: Greater commitment to meaningful reflection and development for all leaders and teachers, with changes in structures and accountability to enable this on a large scale.
“CPD is an important ingredient, but what works best is professional learning,” said Philippa Cordingley, chief executive of the Centre for the Use of Research and Evidence in Education. “We should be thinking about work-based professional learning, not CPD, and provide this through collaboration between schools. When teachers take risks together, that is when they build up trust.
“Schools have rarely shared their understanding of what constitutes professional learning. Pupils are given increasing responsibility for their own learning but this hasn’t been pursued in the same way for teachers.”
Louis Coiffait, CEO of NAHT Edge, said the government should ensure that all school professionals had access to national, recognised qualifications that would help their professional development and enable them to play a full part in school improvement.
“If we have this more fragmented system it is harder as a teacher to know who the good training providers are,” he said. “We recently responded to the consultation on the National Professional Qualification for Middle Leadership – 500 people have done this programme in the past two years, but there are 200,000 middle leaders across the country.
“Giving people good-quality, accredited development and qualifications and ratcheting up the volume of people going through them is a role for government.”
Peter Earley, professor of education leadership and management at the IoE, said school leaders had a role in creating a culture of professional learning in school.
“There is a crime in not wanting to develop professionally,” he said. “Not only is it the responsibility of the teacher, it’s the responsibility of the headteacher as well. If headteachers and other school leaders are not concerned about the growth of their people, the children will get a worse deal.”
Teacher Development Trust chief executive David Weston wanted to discourage schools from focusing on headline data and “top-tip” teaching approaches.
He explained: “Rather than trying to improve generic teaching practice, it is often better to focus on subject-specific learning and look at applying the right technique to that area of learning.”
Recommendation two: Schools should develop alternatives to the current metrics demanded by Ofsted.
Accountability was a major barrier to the empowerment of leaders and teachers, said Mr Coiffait, referring to research carried out with NAHT Edge members in which some said that “the spectre of Ofsted” is putting them off becoming a headteacher.
“When we asked them what CPD they needed they said that they wanted to be able to help staff look good for Ofsted. I think that neatly summed up the incentives driving the system at the moment.”
Mr Earley said Ofsted had driven schools to a situation where whatever gets inspected got done, with no emphasis within schools on the improvement of pedagogy: “The College of Teachers might help here and give schools some strength to be able to say that they are not prepared to be as dominated by Ofsted as they are.
“Sir Tim Brighouse (former London schools commissioner) wanted schools to have a balanced scorecard that measured if schools were preparing people for society. We could change those key performance indicators so that we measure what we value.”
The independent sector could provide models for these new metrics. Denise Willis, head of collegiate management at Queen Ethelburga College, an independent three to 19 school in North Yorkshire, said they were judged by the independent schools inspectorate on extra-curricular activities and pastoral care, as well as attainment.
Recommendation three: Structured, systematic approaches to spotting and nurturing future leaders and talent should be embedded in all schools.
Ms Cordingley said allowing teachers to be fully involved in the design of curriculum would be an early, positive step towards more empowered schools.
“We need to look at reconfiguring teaching and leadership as curriculum design,” she suggested. “One of the features of the old system was that we pulled teachers out of schools and they joined bodies like QCDA or the local authority. We removed a lot of creative talent from the profession.”
Martin Airey, head of school at Darrick Wood School in Kent, suggested that Teaching School status can be a significant driver of professional development and school improvement: “Since becoming a Teaching School we are doing a lot more sharing of best practice. But when I talk to staff the biggest difference is observing other teachers. What they really want to do is observe someone in a context and learn from that context.”
The biggest challenge of improvement initiatives within and between schools was measuring their worth, said Mr Airey: “I am constantly thinking about how my middle leaders are going to identify what will be successful and how we will know if it has been a success.”
Schools needed to look creatively at the way they organise training and professional development, added Mr Earley.
“We need to drive towards personalised professional development. Instead of five INSET days a year we should be emulating what high-performing systems do, such as 150 hours (over three years) as they do in Singapore. I think we have to grasp the nettle and be prepared to legislate for that.”
Recommendation four: Schools need to facilitate collaboration and communication and learn from each other.
Carol Jones, a specialist in leadership and teacher professionalism at the Association of School and College Leaders, said national collaboration networks for all schools were needed, pointing out that “struggling” schools found they had less opportunity to get involved in networks and school-to-school support if they received a “requires improvement” judgement from Ofsted. “There needs to be a national network to enable schools to collaborate if they are able to,” she said.
Further informationThe white paper is available as a free download from http://bit.ly/1LiLxqB
Keith Wright is managing director of school information management business Bluewave.