Roger Pope Chair of NCTL looks at the changing nature of school leadership.
There was a time when to become a headteacher was to reach the top of the tree. With the introduction of local management of schools in 1988, heads were given control over their own budget and staffing, and when I was appointed as a headteacher 10 years later, the local education authority was a long way away in distant county hall. Data was only just being invented, so no one quite knew how good or bad you really were. I was free to run my school pretty much as I liked. It was my manor. And if I wanted to ignore everyone else, pull up the drawbridge and retire to my office with a nice cup of tea and my pet Labrador, then that was my prerogative.
Nineteen years later and a lot has changed about headship. Increasingly, being a headteacher is not just about your school, and it is no longer the endpoint of a career. I think it is a remarkable and uplifting strength of present leadership that headteachers are rolling up their sleeves and helping to lead the system. Over 1,250 heads are now designated national leaders of education and 750 are leading teaching schools. They could all be enjoying the comfort of their own high-performing schools, but instead they’re supporting colleagues and directly benefitting many more pupils. And now, the school-led system is about to ramp up another gear.
The recently launched £140m Strategic School Improvement Fund will target resources at schools most in need of support. The Teaching and Leadership Innovation Fund will add another £75m for improving teacher CPD and leadership development in the areas of the country and the schools that need it most. Schools are currently being invited to be accredited as providers of the revised suite of national professional qualifications. The challenges are massive, but so are the opportunities.
Headteachers are no longer just leading their own school – they’re leading the system.
Whether as part of a teaching school alliance or a multi-academy trust, groups of schools are taking collective responsibility for all of the pupils in their group, not just within their own school. That’s easy when it’s about sharing some ideas about the new geography syllabus. It’s harder when there are real costs.
It was a challenging conversation with my head of biology when I explained we were sending one of her best teachers on secondment to another school. We were an outstanding school and could easily recruit a replacement – our sponsored school was in special measures and could not, but their children still needed an outstanding teacher. That summer, we had our best ever exam results in biology, and so did our sponsored school. They had learned from us, but we also gained both from what they did, and from having to examine our own practice rigorously before holding it up as an example to others.
You might be the standalone headteacher of a school, but the ultimate responsibility may be with the CEO of your multi-academy trust. This can be a bit of a shock to someone used to virtually complete autonomy, but there are some big benefits. Heads can grow into a post, knowing that they have support hard-wired into the system. There is someone else to worry about economies of scale and auditors so you can focus on improving teaching and learning. And yes, you will be held more closely to account, but the pupils will benefit. And that’s what counts, so let’s make it work!
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