Forging closer school-to-school links

Written by: Colin McLean | Published:
Image: iStock

How can schools forge stronger school improvement links with each other? Colin McLean seeks advice from Heather Mullaney of the Heath Family North West multi-academy trust

System leaders – school leaders who work beyond their own school to support other schools – have been a growing presence in the last few years.

They have developed from small pockets of heads and senior leaders creating informal alliances with each other a decade ago to the hundreds of Teaching School Alliances, trusts and partnerships containing thousands of national leaders of education (NLEs), specialist leaders of education (SLEs) and the like that exist today.

System leadership can take many forms. For example, heads of outstanding schools can become NLEs, who support schools in challenging circumstances. Experienced middle or senior leaders interested in supporting their opposites in other schools in areas such as subject leadership, assessment for learning or behaviour can become SLEs, while governors have the chance to become national leaders of governance (NLGs).

And there are newer initiatives that have been inspired by the idea of system leadership, such as the National Teaching Service, being piloted in the North West, which aims to match some of the best teachers and middle leaders to schools that need them most. Different system leadership roles, but they all have a common purpose – to allow school leaders to share their knowledge and experience to help other schools improve.

There is a fresh impetus behind system leadership today with the government’s determination that all schools should become academies. In a system where schools are increasingly running themselves in multi-academy trusts, leadership development and support will, in many circumstances, have to come from schools.

But if you have yet to engage with a Teaching School, or you lead a school that has yet to make a supportive link with other schools, how should you start going about it?

Heather Mullaney, executive principal at The Heath Family North West – a multi-academy trust in Cheshire that includes several Teaching School Alliances – offers some advice.

Be aware of the opportunities

“As a starter, Teaching Schools should communicate as widely as they can about what they can offer schools. It is a mistake to think that your alliance is an exclusive club – you’re there to support other schools that need your help. And every school in the country should have some association with a Teaching School. At the least they need to have a watching brief on the Teaching School’s activities so they know what is going on and when there is an appropriate opportunity to engage with them. Local authorities should also be signposting schools to the services of Teaching Schools.”

Educate governors and parents

“As a headteacher you need to educate your governors and your parents about the benefits of system leadership. Some will be concerned about the impact working outside your school will have on your own school’s performance.

“The fact that so many system leaders bring back real benefits to their home schools, such as new teaching techniques and ideas for professional development, should offer a persuasive message to these important stakeholders. And remember that there are system leadership opportunities open to governors such as NLGs.”

Think about the budget

“The pressures being placed on school funds through a perfect storm of static budgets and growing National Insurance and pension contributions means that money is tight. This is a compelling reason to reach out to other schools to offer support – or to seek that support out.

Linking with other schools offers a cost-effective source of professional development advice and support at a time of contracting resources. Rather than be caught in the storm, this might be the opportunity to harness the storm’s energy to the benefit of your school and those around you.”

Make time and develop

“Time is a major concern for school leaders and taking on a system leadership role might seem like one more additional pressure. Make that time by ensuring that every member of your team has a clear professional development pathway and plenty of opportunities to step up to greater responsibility – this will make it easier for senior leaders like you to step out of school as system leaders because your school will be in safe hands.

“Look at building system leadership into your performance management targets – this will help instil a more outward-facing culture in your school, perhaps asking developing leaders to have a target of improving the outcomes of students in other schools.”

Take a risk

“It is too easy to isolate yourself and think that you are looking after your own. One of the greatest feelings of success is seeing a school going from special measures to good, and from good to outstanding, with your help and support. Taking a risk and supporting other schools is the only way we’re really going to make the ‘school-led system’ a reality across the country.

“The risk you take may well spark a change across your area. The most active system leaders I see around our Teaching School Alliance are the schools that came to us for help. They get what system leadership is about and how it benefits schools and they are actually the biggest donators of support. They have the most SLEs for example.”

  • Colin McLean is chief executive of Best Practice Network, a national provider of training and professional development. Visit


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