After seven years at the National College

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As Steve Munby, chief executive of the National College, prepares to stand down after seven years, he looks back on a period of change for school leadership and considers the road ahead.

With the summer holidays now a distant memory and the new school year underway, this seems an opportune moment to reflect upon and celebrate the achievements of recent times and to consider how we grasp the opportunities and tackle the challenges that lie ahead of us.

In the next few weeks, I will leave the National College after seven years as chief executive. It’s been an absolute privilege to lead the College during this time and to support so many of you and your organisations in the amazing work you do. It’s certainly been a period of unprecedented change. 

Back in 2005 when I joined the College, the education world was quite a different place. My first priority as chief executive was to talk to school leaders and find out what they felt was good and what was not so good about the National College and also their views on school leadership in England. 

I telephoned 500 headteachers and consulted with many others at a series of events right across the country. It helped me to clarify the direction that the National College needed to take and also to have a much better sense of the issues and challenges facing school leaders.    

Many schools leaders said they wanted to take on a greater role in addressing the inequities and variation, as they saw it, across the education system. 

I was optimistic and hugely encouraged by the moral purpose that existed in the profession and excited by their passion and commitment to making a difference beyond their own school. 

However, aside from practice taking place as part of the London Challenge and in pockets around the country, most highly effective school leaders were still neither supported nor encouraged to take on responsibility for improving the wider system they operated within.  

But a growing belief existed that it should be school leaders themselves that should shape the system they operated in, tapping into the expertise and commitment that existed in the schools that they led. 

The College was certainly committed to this. As the government tasked us with addressing system-wide issues such as succession planning and improving the quality of leadership development, it was clear to us that local solutions were needed and that schools, working together in partnership and drawing on excellence, should be at the forefront of finding solutions. Progress made so far is a testament to this approach.

Over time there has been a definite shift in attitude, at all levels, with school leaders increasingly seen as the drivers of improvement.

Through the example of the London Challenge and the fantastic work of innovators such as Sir Tim Brighouse, Dr George Berwick, Dame Sue John, Dame Yasmin Bevan and many others, leaders began to untap and demonstrate the power of school-led system leadership. 

More platforms for leaders to provide support and share their expertise beyond the individual school began to support this trend, with initiatives such as City Challenge, National and Local Leaders of Education, RATL (Raising Achievement and Transforming Learning), and professional partners taking school-to-school support to a national level. The result was a significant improvement in schools receiving support from excellent school leaders. 

The role of school leaders as system leaders has also been strongly reinforced since the coalition government came to power. The commitment to increase the number of National and Local Leaders of Education, and the drive to create 500 Teaching School Alliances leading on initial teacher training, CPD, school-to-school improvement, and research and development, has taken the sense of professional responsibility to a new level. It is a vision that will see the profession taking unprecedented levels of responsibility for ensuring pupils right across our education system receive the start in life they deserve.

Let me be clear, I don’t think we are there yet. There is more to do. But I believe if we achieve this, we will have done something unmatched anywhere in the world.

However, I also believe it will require leaders everywhere to step up, increasingly, to a new kind of leadership – leadership that is beyond their own institution and where the ability to develop effective and powerful relationships with leaders in other schools is crucial. This is about how we as leaders conduct ourselves – a spirit of professionalism built on a real, collective drive to make a difference for all.

It is about each one of us in the profession stepping up to lead a self-improving system – setting high standards and challenging mediocre practice; sharing enthusiasm for excellence, even when it is achieved by our competitors; accountability that starts with those we serve – children, young people and their parents; and a commitment to continuous improvement, for others as well as ourselves. 

If we are ready to model that kind of leadership and willing to accept and expect it from others, we will, indeed, see transformational progress.

Many believe, understandably, that the current era will be remembered for the policy changes we are currently experiencing. That may be so, but I also believe it will be remembered for how school leaders make the most of the autonomy and freedom to create a new sense of collective professionalism, an approach that enables the very best practice and highest standards to be achieved in each of our schools and for every child. 

This is both the challenge and the opportunity that lies ahead for the current generation of school leaders. Today, as when I concluded my 500 phone calls seven years ago, I am filled with a sense of optimism for the next stage for this great profession.

  • Steve Munby is chief executive for the National College for School Leadership. Steve will be leaving the National College later in the autumn to take up a new role as chief executive of CfBT Education Trust.


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