Bridget Clay - Head of Programmes for School Leadership at Teach First
Bridget Clay
Director of School Leadership at Teach First

School Leadership: our latest thinking

Teach First is not just about the Training Programme. Our Director of School Leadership explains our increased focus on developing aspiring leaders.

Last year, we launched our new strategy, detailing how we’re working towards three things: great teachers, thriving networks and schools and, increasingly, brilliant leaders. You might be wondering - after fifteen years of working with teachers at the beginning of their careers, why the growing focus on leaders?

We’ve always developed our trainees’ leadership skills, empowering them to set their pupils up for success. And with a 10,000 strong alumni community, including 69 headteachers and over 2000 school leaders, our leadership pipeline is significant. Increasingly, schools want to partner with us not only to place new teachers, but to develop their existing staff. So, our leadership programmes are open to any aspiring leader in schools serving low income communities.

Of all in-school factors, quality teaching has the biggest impact on pupil outcomes. That needs to be driven by strong leaders who prioritise the development of their teachers. In our 2018 report, Ofsted found that an estimated 850,000 pupils in the UK attend a school where the quality of leadership is not good. We wouldn’t accept that for our own children, so we can't accept it for the pupils in these schools.

In response to this, we are drafting our theory of change for school leadership to help us focus our efforts. We believe if the following four things were true, the education system would be on track to getting more teachers and pupils the school leadership they deserve:

  • Barriers to teachers progressing into and staying in leadership positions in schools in disadvantaged areas are removed.
  • Leaders can effectively work with their teams to diagnose, design, implement, evaluate and sustain school improvements.
  • Leaders don’t feel isolated. They actively seek out and maximise effective collaboration opportunities that support school improvement and enable them to thrive.
  • Leaders create great learning and working environments, with a culture of professional development, career opportunities and manageable workload.

With a likely shortage of school leaders, a lack of coherent development opportunities in the system, and a perception that progression will lead to more pressure, we need to work collectively to make a career in school leadership more attractive than it currently is.

Research by the National Association of Headteachers suggests that less than half of middle leaders aspire to headship or system leadership roles, and 1 in 3 are considering leaving the profession entirely.

So, through our leadership programmes (National Professional Qualifications, Careers Leader trainingLeading Together and Headship First), we are thinking carefully about the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ we cover in the curriculum - ensuring we make good use of precious time.

Our extensive research and experience - laid out in our recent Thriving Schools report - has landed on seven crucial elements, which are intended for leaders to explore and embed into their practice. A definition of school leadership is hard to pin down, but we have focused on what leaders do or need to do well, rather than who leaders are or should be.

School leaders need to: 

  1. Be skilled at overseeing an implementation cycle. They need to work across teams to diagnose, design, implement, evaluate and sustain the right improvements for their school context. Within the diagnosis they will require data and insight from staff across the school. We like the EEF Implementation Guidance which has shaped our approach to our NPQs, while our Thriving School research found implementation to be a key ingredient of sustainably successful schools.
  2. Focus on the culture they establish. Strong leaders over-communicate, instil trust and model expected behaviours. They welcome and give regular feedback, listen to the experts on their staff team, focus on the development of all staff, prioritise time for professional learning and keep workload manageable. Great leaders focus on the issues that teachers face and focus conversations on pupil achievement. Kraft and Papay give more detail on this culture.
  3. Nurture a positive environment where there is consistency in policy and application. This means teachers can teach and students can learn. Within our Thriving Schools research, we found the importance of consistency was one of the top things that sustainably successful schools were doing.
  4. Continue to develop themselves as domain experts, leaders of research-informed curriculum, pedagogical and assessment approaches. But equally, they must develop cross-sector expertise in resource management, performance management, organisational structures, communication planning and financial management. On our Leading Together programme, we prioritise modules on curriculum planning and the science of learning, alongside our work with Deloitte, to tailor their business expertise and make it relevant for senior teams.
  5. Be passionate about developing their teams’ career paths. This is done by instilling a culture where professional development is understood as an entitlement. Skilled budget and people management mentioned above will support this being possible.
  6. Be able to flex between being inward and outward facing. They should be fiercely focused on and protective of staff and pupils, whilst being skilled networkers who share their insights and build the right partnerships for the school. They should contribute to and learn from the sector - another key feature of our Thriving Schools research (supported by Johnson, Kraft and Papay).
  7. Be able to sustain their team’s, and their own, wellbeing. We have done lots of thinking about teacher and leader wellbeing and know that, whilst challenging, it is essential if we are to see our school leaders remaining and thriving in the profession. You can read more here.

Combined, all this could add up to be overwhelming, so school leadership can’t just fall on the headteacher - it needs to be owned by a senior team as a whole. Focusing on improving the whole leadership team has an effect three to four times as large on student outcomes as providing “transformational” leadership of inspiration and energy.

As we live through the Covid-19 crisis, leadership teams need to reimagine how they will lead their staff and pupils remotely, and consider what the aftermath will mean for staff, pupils and curriculum intent. Now more than ever, we need to be shoring up excellent leadership teams with deep expertise and an impact that sustains. 

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