Ideas for teaching students leadership skills

Written by: Dr Kevin Stannard | Published:

The Girls’ Day School Trust recently held its national Young Leaders Conference. Dr Kevin Stannard discusses some of their schools’ approaches to teaching leadership skills.

Leadership skills don’t develop in a silo. They originate and grow out of a meshed group of attributes that we seek to develop in schools.

Learning how to evaluate information, sifting significant facts, developing physical and mental discipline, being resilient, open and engaged with the world, listening to and respecting the views of others, effectively communicating one’s own views, knowing when and how to work independently and collaboratively – these are all attributes that are important in effective leaders. They matter as much as knowing facts, figures and formulae.

The difference is that while the latter derive from what pupils are taught, the opportunities and attributes important to leadership arise out of how pupils are taught, and more importantly how they learn. They also spill out of the classroom and into extra-curricular activities.

Thus, leadership is learned through the culture as much as the curriculum of a school, and is implicated in activities well beyond the classroom. They are often developed informally, under the radar.

There is a danger that, as a consequence, the development of these attributes becomes either taken for granted or else discounted.

Thinking about leadership, as with other desirable attributes, involves drawing out more explicitly where and how the different components of the curriculum and co-curriculum contribute to it. Below are some examples of how we look to do this.

Assessing leadership

It is remarkable that public exams – the universal summary measure of pupil attainment in English schools – test pupils as individuals working in isolation. There is very little formal assessment of anything involving collaboration or group working, and pretty much nothing about leadership.

Which is a shame, because the importance of an aspect of education is all too often read directly from the extent to which it is tested or reported on.

Whether we like it or not, if we want to foreground leadership as a crucial dimension of learning, we have to find ways of making it part of a school’s culture – setting expectations that pupils will learn the relevant skills during their education; establishing an understanding and a framework around how to do this and how to record it.

We are working to do this across our schools by using their data management systems to record and report on pupils’ development beyond academic subject marks. Pupils’ contributions, including leadership, can thus be added to a cumulative and progressive record of achievement.

Leadership skills in the classroom

At the Royal High School in Bath, all lessons and activities are built around a specially designed “learner profile”, which sets out the school’s aspirations for the attributes they would like their girls to develop.

The expectation is that lessons will be designed with these attributes in mind, and teachers are asked to record examples of how they do this and the progress individual pupils are making against each one.

This is woven in to the way the school operates through setting clear expectations, lesson observation, encouraging discussion among staff about different approaches, as well as feedback from students and senior leaders.

Headteacher Rebecca Dougall believes that in a well-differentiated approach to teaching there will always be opportunities for leadership – a good lesson involving peer-support, peer-assessment, guidance, negotiation, and constructive feedback, will help pupils to start to learn key skills.

Outside the classroom

Beyond formal classroom settings, there are a wealth of initiatives and activities that can be introduced:

  • Independent research projects.
  • Give pupils the chance to lead school-wide events.
  • Allow older pupils to teach/work with younger ones.
  • Partnerships with other schools and organisations.

Additional projects

Brighton and Hove High School has offered its voluntary “Temple Project Qualification” since 2012, with 165 year 8 to 11 pupils completing it in that time. It is a standalone, in-house qualification which provides the opportunity for an individual student to develop and extend an area of personal interest or activity outside their timetabled lessons.

Students can produce anything from a written essay to a film or artwork with an accompanying report, working over the summer holidays and handing it in on a set date during the autumn term.

The process is as important as the finished piece and students are required to keep a log of the time they spend, obstacles they encounter, and how they overcome them. It is designed to inculcate and develop skills vital for leadership, such as organisation, problem-solving, prioritising, presentation, communication and both creative and critical-thinking.

A culture of leadership

Back at the Royal High School, a real premium is put on encouraging students to take on leadership responsibilities throughout their time at school, focusing on placing trust in pupils to take on school-wide projects.

The school has 6th form prefects as well as key stage 4 student leaders, who are tasked with running key events in the school calendar. For example, the annual Speech Day (a review of the school year) is organised by the year 10 student leaders, who shape the event by deciding on a broad theme and structure, delivering speeches themselves, and telling the head when and how long to speak for.

The school’s Remembrance Day commemorations and 11-plus admissions days are also student-led. The assumption is that they will get it right and this gives pupils confidence, which is then reinforced when it does go well.

Mentoring younger pupils

At Sydenham High School in south London, 6th-formers and also year 8 pupils, working in a skill development programme called Alchemy, take on leadership roles with younger pupils in the junior school.

The experience of 2012 final year art student, Anya Landolt, is a prime example of the dual benefits of such an approach. Anya was not only awarded an A* and 100/100 for her final A level artwork, but she went on an important journey of discovery while developing her piece.

In parallel with her studies, she worked with a group of year 3 students in an art club at the junior school to help them explore how to represent movement in time. As well as helping Anya to develop her leadership skills, the project opened up new possibilities in art to the younger girls – some of whom had previously said art was their least favourite subject – and together they created a range of remarkable artworks which might have been expected of much older girls.

Extra-curricular activities

Extra-curricular activities done in partnership with external organisations and other schools also help pupils to develop leadership skills. Obvious examples are The Duke of Edinburgh Award and the Young Enterprise scheme. Each year, the Girl’s Day School Trust holds a Young Leaders Conference, bringing together new year 13 student leaders from our schools.

Students work in teams in a competitive Apprentice-style challenge to plan a marketing and fundraising event for one of several national and international charities who are invited to showcase at the conference (such as Plan UK and Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust). They present their final work to a judging panel, with prizes awarded at the end.

There are so many different and creative ways to teach leadership. Building in a structure and a set of expectations around teaching leadership into the school culture is key to making sure it remains a priority.

This must then be underpinned by a range of activities and initiatives to support this, both within and outside of the classroom.

  • Dr Kevin Stannard is director of innovation and learning at the Girls’ Day School Trust.

CAPTION: Taking a lead: The Girls’ Day School Trust recently invited 125 year 13 students from across 25 schools to a School Leaders Conference at Bath’s Royal High School.


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