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Maria Cunningham
Programme Director- School Leadership at Teach First

Brilliant Leaders: sustainably successful schools

An exciting new blog series on school leadership for current and aspiring leaders, discussing progression, obstacles, diversity and more.

Welcome to our new ‘Brilliant Leaders’ blog series! Over the coming months we’ll be sharing a collection of blog posts aimed at current and aspiring leaders, as well as those supporting others in their school or community to think about their next career steps.

These posts will cast a spotlight on what leaders have found helpful in their leadership progression, what support is available in the sector for leaders to overcome obstacles to progression, and what existing leaders are doing to help build and diversify the future workforce. 

Browse all blog posts in the ‘Brilliant Leaders’ series:

Coming soon:

  • Flexible working and school leadership 
  • 5 Reasons to become a headteacher 
  • Supporting diversity in leadership 
  • Things I wish I’d known from the start as a female leader 

Current challenges 

Over 850,000 children are in schools that lack good leadership (according to Ofsted) and the leadership pipeline is only further weakening. Last year, a NAHT report described the school leadership supply as “on the brink of collapse” with fewer teachers aspiring to school leadership or headship. Two- fifths of leaders surveyed by NAHT and ASCL said they plan to leave the profession within the next five years and nine in ten stated the pandemic had been the main or a contributing factor in this decision.  

These intentions are already becoming reality - SchoolDash data shows headteacher turnover has increased by more than a third since 2019, with one in ten schools welcoming a new head in September 2022. Such attrition levels don’t come without consequences. High staff turnover makes it increasingly challenging to preserve institutional knowledge and sustain consistency of practice, pupil stability and manageable staff workloads.   

If we further interrogate the leadership pipeline, the gaps are even more stark around diversity and representation. In partnership with Teach First and Ambition Institute, NFER recently analysed racial equality in the school workforce and found significant under-representation of all ethnic groups except white at all stages of the teacher career pipeline except ITT, with teachers from minority backgrounds less likely to progress to leadership than their white counterparts.  

Calling for change 

As a sector we can all do better on this. If we want to tackle injustice and for more school leaders to accurately reflect the communities they serve, then equalising the opportunities for progression in teaching for people from all backgrounds is an urgent and non-negotiable priority – this is reflected in Teach First’s ongoing focus on Diversity and Inclusion.  

We are eager to tackle these challenges head on and to support leaders to develop and thrive whatever their context, background or chosen pathway. 

Why is school leadership so important?  

There is extensive evidence that quality of teaching is the most important in-school factor influencing pupil outcomes (Hanushek and Rivkin, 2012; Burgess, 2019; Jackson, 2016). Furthermore, the positive impact of high-quality teaching is particularly significant for disadvantaged pupils (Sutton Trust, 2011; Slater et al., 2012). With the attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers having widened since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, we cannot rely on high-quality teaching simply happening; instead, this needs to be deliberately driven by school leaders who are well-equipped to prioritise the professional development of their teams.   

There is nothing new in this message and Teach First is not the first to champion the need for strong school leadership. As national policy and the nature of school improvement has shifted in recent years, the sector has recognised key areas of practice that leaders need to continually develop in order to be successful.    

This includes domain-specific awareness of up-to-date, research-informed approaches in areas such as curriculum, pedagogy and assessment. However, it is also of the utmost importance to develop effective implementation, i.e. the ability to design, realise, sustain and evaluate a deliberate process of change.   

Teachers and students alike recognise and value good leadership, with a recent survey by ImpactEd finding it to be the most important factor in determining staff satisfaction and pupil happiness.  

Research tells us that consistency, coherence and alignment is important for effective teacher learning and for successful schools. Teach First works in partnership with thousands of schools and programme members to build capacity for sustainable school improvement and are uniquely placed to provide alignment and coherence across the ‘golden thread’ through all levels of teaching and leadership; from Initial Teacher Training to Executive Headship.   

We have always been well known across the sector for our flagship  Training Programme for new trainee teachers and for developing trainees’ leadership skills, but we are just as committed to developing aspiring school leaders. This is a key pillar of our ambitious future strategy for ensuring more disadvantaged young people get the chances and choices they deserve from their time in school and beyond.  

Teachers and students alike recognise and value good leadership, with a recent survey by ImpactEd finding it to be the most important factor in determining staff satisfaction and pupil happiness.

What Teach First is doing  

School leaders – present and future – say they want greater recognition of their professional expertise. Our National Professional Qualifications (NPQs) offer high-quality, evidence-led training in a variety of specialist routes, whatever your pathway. We also offer a Careers Leader Programme with fully-funded, targeted training and support available for middle and senior leaders responsible for career guidance in school.   

We are working with entire senior leadership teams through our Leading Together programme, helping them to collectively grow their school’s ability to meet the challenges they face and address any leadership gaps. An external evaluation by NFER found the programme to improve leaders’ confidence, knowledge and skills, improve teaching quality across the school, support staff progression and as a result of these shifts, see corresponding improvements in pupil outcomes and Ofsted ratings.  

We are focussed on building networks across our unique and extensive community to provide effective collaboration opportunities that support school improvement, whilst helping to connect leaders and ensure they don’t feel isolated.    

Teach First is looking ahead in this strategy. We are open to hearing ideas about what more we should be doing both in terms of supporting and connecting existing leaders, and nurturing the future leadership pool. To make our education system work for every child, we firmly believe that brilliant leaders sit at the heart of sustainably successful schools, and we're making it our aim to get and keep them there.  


Find out more about our leadership programmes for current and aspiring school leaders. 

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