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How Do We Develop The Leaders That Our Children Need?

School leadership is a challenge – but it’s one that more than a select few should be able to face with confidence

  • How Do We Develop The Leaders That Our Children Need?

Say the phrase ‘CPD’ and many people will have a negative response. For the vast majority of professionals I know, it conjures up memories of a day out of school in a cheap hotel being told about policy that was already out of date. As a result, in-work learning has acquired a bad reputation.

This is the exact opposite of what should be the case; and so I always balk at using ‘CPD’ in relation to leadership development, because high-quality sustained development is what we really need to improve schools and give children an excellent education, particularly for schools in challenging contexts.

This is because school leadership in our most disadvantaged communities is challenging. It is challenging because many pupils start secondary school with significant gaps in prior attainment, the accountability is high, and the time to turn around is short. It’s no surprise that attracting and recruiting great teachers and leaders to deliver that change can be hard.

To create schools where every child can thrive no matter what their background, we need leaders with vision and moral purpose who can see what needs to happen, who have the leadership behaviours and technical skills to deliver it, and who can draw upon the drive, resilience and compassion to sustain it in the toughest circumstances.

But this is not just heads: we also need exceptional leaders at all levels to ensure there are no gaps. At the moment, the schools that need these leaders most are struggling to find them. 

Wanted: 19,000 leaders by 2020

In November, The Future Leaders Trust, Teach First and Teaching Leaders released a report based on the projected number of school leaders that may be needed by 2022. The upper reach of the projection estimated that we may face a shortfall of up to 19,000 leaders – assistant heads, deputies, heads, exec heads and CEOs – by 2022.

The report was entitled ‘The School Leadership Challenge’ because we have the potential in our system, but we are not harnessing it. We found three specific challenges: we are not attracting enough teachers into leadership; we are not supporting or progressing enough younger leaders to headship; and our workforce is not diverse enough.

The solution is to create a career pathway which identifies our next generation of leaders and provides them with the support, development and coaching at every stage to build our future leadership pipeline. We believe this will increase retention and progression.

Since that report was released, we have done just that: The Future Leaders Trust and Teaching Leaders have merged to create Ambition School Leadership, a new organisation dedicated to developing school leaders at all levels. This represents an opportunity to reshape leadership development in our schools and banish the ghosts of CPD

A strategy for development

To create the leaders our children need, we believe we need to maintain the following principles for leadership development:

We need to move away from ‘development’ meaning the completion of time-bound programmes followed by large gaps. Leadership learning should be ongoing, continual leaders are constantly developing, reflecting and growing. By providing competency and skills frameworks at every level of leadership, leaders can start to monitor their own development and set development goals.

Provision is currently too patchy around the country. We know that leaders are attracted by the quality of development so we need to ensure that the areas that need leaders the most are the ones that have our most comprehensive development and support. Work we did with the Education Policy Institute found that schools in Opportunity Areas were twice as likely to have moved from good or outstanding to requires improvement or below since 2010.

Mentoring and coaching
A mentor or line manager working 1:1 with a leader can identify and work on specific development needs. Our recent research in the TES found that new heads found mentoring to be one of the most useful parts of development. They can support leaders through targeted ‘stretch’ projects within or outside of the leadership role and provide the monitoring and support to ensure the leader succeeds.

Spot early, build confidence
Mentors and line managers can also play a critical role in spotting younger leaders from under-represented groups, tapping them on the shoulder and giving them the belief that they can go on to be great school leaders. Too many aspiring leaders do not apply for roles or perform well at the assessment process because they do not have the self-confidence or belief they can deliver.

Peer networks
Leaders learn best when they are learning alongside other like-minded peers. We group leaders into peer review groups, visiting one another’s schools, critiquing and challenging impact projects, sharing knowledge but also supporting when one leader is having a challenge. We also provide an online community where leaders can ask any questions to get support and solutions to leadership challenges as you never know what challenges you will face when you step up to leadership.

Pupil impact projects
As part of action learning, all leaders need to implement their learning through a project which has at its heart a greater impact on pupils. In essence, if leadership development is not driving better outcomes for students then we have missed the point and so ensuring we remain child-focused in what we do is key.

Individually, these views are not revolutionary professional development – but putting them all together may be enough to make change happen faster. It will identify more of the leaders we need, be more representative, and help us to retain and progress more leaders. Providing a holistic, career-long development pathway with network of like-minded leaders is at the heart of my vision for the new organisation I’m leading.

Creating high-quality leadership development for school leaders at all levels will mean saving people from the bad coffee and interminable lectures of CPD. Far more than that it will allow real change. We can establish a consistency about what great leadership looks like. Providing programmes that can lead to both mastery and progression, and that are flexible for individuals and strategically useful for schools, means we can reach more people and have a great impact on the sector.

Most of all, together these mean that by developing great leaders we can create more great schools so that every child in every location gets the same opportunities to achieve.

James Toop is CEO of Ambition School Leadership, a school leadership development charity formed from the merger of Teaching Leaders and The Future Leaders Trust. It delivers development programmes for leaders at all levels from middle leaders to CEOs.

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