I wrote this originally in response to a piece in TES by Anthony Seldon, in which he talked of establishing a new leadership college at the University of Buckingham, where he is now Vice-Chancellor.
In Seldon’s view, the National College for Teaching and Leadership had been a failure. The standard of current heads was poor, he thought – with too many heads lacking “any clear idea of why they are there or what they have to offer”. Together with Sir Michael Wilshaw and Toby Young, Seldon was discussing launching a new school leadership college to fast track potential leaders and career changers into early headship, thus helping to address the “crisis” in headteacher supply.
Seldon claimed “Nothing matters more than the quality of leadership – nothing.” Although I agree with how important it is to identify, nurture and develop the best leaders at all levels (Middle and Senior Leaders in addition to heads), in fact research evidence suggests that the factor which has the greatest impact on pupil outcomes is the quality of teaching (Leithwood et al, 2006; Barber et al 2010). However, I can see it is disingenuous to separate the two. Leaders appoint teachers, they inspire and encourage them, support them and hold them to account.
So what can we do to ensure we have sufficient numbers of high-quality headteachers?
Firstly, we need to ensure that we are identifying and developing Middle Leaders, and Senior Leaders, so that we have a strong pipeline of leaders coming through to headship. Being a successful Middle or Senior Leader isn’t dramatically different from being an effective head (it’s only the scale/scope which changes), and in education you grow your skills and build experience by progressing through these levels of leadership. Unlike Seldon, I think the National College has done a good job here, especially in its heyday under the inspired leadership of Steve Munby and Maggie Farrar.
Secondly, we need to encourage current heads to be outward-facing and not to be selfish with their schools’ leadership talent. I know it’s difficult in times of a teacher and leader shortage (“when the water hole starts to shrink, the animals around it begin to look at each other differently…”), but sometimes good people need to be encouraged to move on, for their own development.
Thirdly, we need carefully to examine and address what is driving good leaders and teachers out of the profession, and deterring staff at all levels from embracing further leadership challenges. Can we make the most of the talent we already have in schools, rather than just focussing on recruiting new leaders? I’m always struck by how many impressive teachers and potential leaders are out there, and in this, again, I feel differently from Seldon. However, these staff have to feel valued and not subject to unreasonable demands.
For me, headship was the BEST job in the school. How can we communicate that message without misleading people about the challenges? It’s crucial that we try.
Photo credit John Berry: Working with primary heads in Trinidad & Tobago, 2015.
This post was originally published on @staffrm in 2016