When reflecting on the great schools globally I have visited, I see schools which excel at what they do in a consistent manner, they have strong values and high expectations, their achievements do not happen by chance but through highly reflective, carefully planned strategies, there is a high degree of internal consistency, and leadership is well distributed and ambitious to move forward.
In summary, excellence is not an act, but a habit. The schools and their staff practise being excellent. What then is the starting point for inspirational leadership?
First, it is knowing where you want to go. At the heart of that knowledge is deciding what it is that you want your children and students to have by way of 21st century minds, knowledge and skills. Great school leaders have thought through this question very carefully and of course are prepared to adapt as they proceed.
Second, these leaders decide, with their colleagues, what the curriculum should be and how it should be organised. After all, what we teach lies at the heart of every school. Schools embody continuity, tradition, constancy in a changing world. Schools in any culture seek to balance the transmission of values from the past with anticipation of future cultural norms.
The international architect Richard Rogers argues compellingly: “Architecture is measured against the past, you build in the present and you try to imagine the future.” So too with schools. They are immutably of the past, present and the future, and what they choose to teach their children is a similar blend of history, contemporary knowledge and a skill-set for today and tomorrow.
I will mention here five key traits that I have observed with inspiring school leaders.
They tighten up to be good, but loosen to become outstanding. Leaders recognise the importance of high levels of quality control to secure sparkling classrooms, evolving into higher levels of quality assurance. Thus a whole-school culture of excellence is created, within which teachers and students feel empowered to take measured risks.
They are restless. There is a strange tension at their core: they are very secure in their systems, values and successes yet simultaneously are seeking to change and improve. These schools look inwards to secure wise development, they look outwards to seize innovation which they can shape in the best interests of the students they serve.
They place great store by how well they can create “a sense of urgency at the right time” and a shared “it’s never too late” mentality among all staff. Confident, thoughtful and convincing leaders recognise that not everything can be achieved at the same time, but that staff can “shift gear” for a sustained period of time if there is that collective ambition to improve the school.
They create a “we” not an “I” culture. They set out genuinely to see the best in people, dwell on the positive, acknowledge and applaud success, while at the same time being single-minded in rooting out any mediocrity which risks infecting excellence as standard.
They absolutely know what makes up the cocktail of great teaching and learning. Whatever their leadership position, they remain children at heart and love the fun and fundamentals of classrooms.
The recently published National Standards of Excellence for Headteachers (2015) are designed to inspire public confidence in today’s and tomorrow’s headteachers. They list 24 characteristics expected of those who lead schools, and against which headteachers can benchmark their professionalism.
In any survey of which professions are trusted most by the general public, headteachers regularly appear in the top few positions. This is nothing new, but in an era when professions are properly under increased scrutiny, the content of the new Standards afford an opportunity to reaffirm the vital roles of school leaders.
Expectations of what professionals can and should achieve rise inexorably. Think for a moment what we expect today of our architects, our doctors, our engineers. Headteachers today, in order to inspire public confidence, require a tremendous breadth of knowledge and range of skills, not to mention highly developed interpersonal qualities.
In the modern era when change is a constant, especially fuelled by instant messaging and social media, raising aspirations in what young people can achieve is naturally expected – by parents, by politicians, by the media. Schools and school leaders are under the microscope of published examination results to produce year-on-year improvements and provide those many extras in a child’s education.
Further, in a rich society there are proper concerns that wealth and opportunity are unevenly spread. Schools are properly seen as places which can make a tangible difference in closing achievement gaps. This can only be done with inspired teaching and an innovative curriculum offer.
Strong leadership thrives confidently on accountability and does not see it as an intrusion or obstacle; inspiring leaders embrace opportunities to be “entrepreneurial and innovative” where there are evident gains for staff development and for enhancing pupils’ experiences within and outside school. The National Standards are organised in four domains:
1, Qualities and knowledge
Unsurprisingly in this first domain, characteristics to be found in teachers and headteachers alike are included: working with moral purpose, demonstrating optimistic personal behaviour, drawing on their own scholarship.
The added leadership dimension comes with the expectation that excellent headteachers will communicate a compelling vision to their school community and empower pupils and staff alike to excel in their work. To do this, they need to have a wise understanding of how to translate national policy into a given context, being aware too of what the best global systems of education provide.
2, Pupils and staff
The wellbeing and achievements of staff and pupils lie at the heart of this domain, with the clear recognition that no school and no classroom can be better than those who lead and teach within them.
Headteachers are urged to ensure that equality is advanced, pupil disadvantage combatted, and the best classroom practice is shared between staff. Accountability, professional conduct and the spotting of emerging talents are underpinning themes.
3, Systems and process
It is the stuff of leadership manuals that attention to detail with systems and organisation matters. This domain thus ranges across wise financial management, performance management and robust governance. It is equally focused on the proper safeguarding of pupils and developing their exemplary behaviour in school and in the wider community. Distributed leadership are watchwords.
4, The self-improving school system
Within this fourth domain lie the most exciting strands for current and future school leaders: to create outward-facing schools, to challenge educational orthodoxies in the best interests of the students they serve, to shape the future of the teaching profession, and to model entrepreneurial and innovative approaches to school improvement and leadership. That is some agenda.
Taken together, the four domains of the Headteachers’ Standards add up to an ambitious and motivating set of statements. They are underpinned by a belief in the fundamental importance of the value of lifelong education, securely rooted in what children and young people experience during their school days. They provide a clarion call to inspire current and future generations of great school leaders.
Further informationNational Standards of Excellence for Headteachers, Department for Education, (January, 2015): www.gov.uk/government/publications/national-standards-of-excellence-for-headteachers Photo: iStock
- Roy Blatchford is director of the National Education Trust (www.nationaleducationtrust.net) and he was vice-chair of the independent review group which recently produced the National Standards of Excellence for Headteachers. His Practical Guide to the Standards has just been published by John Catt Educational (www.johncattbookshop.com).