Specialist leaders of education have a significant role to play in raising standards in our schools. This post looks at how they work to support other leaders.
Specialist leaders of education (SLEs) are outstanding middle and senior leaders with a particular area of expertise and the skills to develop the leadership capacity of colleagues in similar positions in other schools. As Claire Carter, leader of the Cabot Federation Teaching School in Bristol, explains, SLEs “have a track record of relevant and successful leadership expertise in their own or other schools to draw upon. There is a lot of coaching in the SLE approach. It’s about discussion, asking the right questions and seeking solutions together”.
From satisfactory to good
Although the deployment of SLEs is brokered by teaching schools, they provide support across the whole school system.
Debra Redpath, headteacher of Rowner Infant School requested the support of an SLE after the sudden loss of several staff members led her to be concerned her Ofsted rating was in danger of declining.
“Our staff wanted to change. We knew we didn’t want to stay ‘satisfactory’. We didn’t want that for the staff, the children or the community. There was a common commitment to improve.”
Working with Moira Groves, SLE coordinator for the Pioneer Teaching School Alliance, an SLE focusing on literacy was deployed to Rowner.
“It was about coaching the staff and making them feel that they could make a bigger difference,” says Debra. “There was joint planning with the SLE, classroom observations, modelling and team teaching. [The SLE] focused on the positives. Her approach was ‘that’s good but how could it be even better?’. She made the team feel that they had the answers within themselves, and within two sessions a trusting relationship had been established”.
The impact of SLE support was tangible. Year 1 pupils’ attainment in literacy and their attitudes towards the subject improved. But there were also unexpected benefits. “It changed the ethos. Confidence improved. We saw more professional conversations happening in the staff room," says Debra. “Staff were discussing what they were doing, whereas before they were anxious talking about that in case it didn’t go well”.
“Gradually, the changes in year 1 began to percolate across the school,” observes Moira and in March 2013, Rowner Infant School was judged by Ofsted to be a ‘good’ school.
Working across a region
SLEs from Bishop Rawstorne teaching school are currently supporting six secondary schools in their local authority area. A big part of that support is working with department heads. SLE coordinator, Karen Parker explains, “all heads of science in the six schools come to us for a network meeting to identify common issues. Bringing them all together in one place makes good sense. This approach means that money is better spent for the local authority".
These network meetings are always run by an SLE. “They ask each head of department to bring their three-year curriculum plan to the meeting,” says Karen. “We check that they have got the curriculum structure right. The discussion is led by the SLE. I will also bring exemplar materials from outstanding schools”.
The meetings focus on a number of core areas, including curriculum design, marking, quality of feedback and quality assurance of lesson judgements.
"A lot of these schools have had inspections and they know what they need to improve. But they do not know how to do it. We are helping by putting systems in place so they can do it themselves.
“The feedback from the headteachers has so far been excellent,” she adds. “The fact that this has come from subject experts they feel has been a great help. The information is up to date and there is rich subject knowledge underpinning it. They have credibility."
Many SLEs combine their outreach role with a leadership role in their own schools. Claire Carter believes that this is a major strength of the SLE programme: “It is essential that those being coached know that the SLEs are also practitioners,” she says. “It creates credibility. SLEs know what they’re talking about because they’ve done it themselves.”
This extends to supporting the delivery of leadership development and CPD activity. The Outwood Institute of Education holds leadership licenses for NPQML, NPQSL and NPQH and deliver them using staff drawn from their SLE team. As Emma Foster, executive director of the Institute explains:
“This has a range of benefits – it gives our SLEs the opportunity to share their skills and develop their leadership skills by working with other aspiring and developing leaders.
“We also get our SLEs to be facilitators on our Outstanding Teacher and Improving Teacher programmes and they help on inputs into subject pedagogy for our School Direct trainees.”
Impact on home schools
The benefits of an SLE’s work can extend beyond the support the receiving school gains. SLE coordinator, Moira Groves believes that SLE programmes can only be sustainable if they also benefit the SLEs themselves and their home schools.
As SLE Charlotte Sonnex says: “When you go out and support other schools you are practising your skills all the time. It means that when I come back into school I can help with the professional development of our leaders with the confidence that I know it has worked in other schools. It makes you more adaptable and more confident”.
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