Leadership - Staying in one place needn't slow you down

Sticking with the same school isn't a barrier to career progression, as long as you take a proactive approach to gaining experience
29th May 2015, 1:00am
David Hall


Leadership - Staying in one place needn't slow you down


Teaching has always had its share of urban myths, but chief among them is that staying at one school is a hindrance to your career. Does staying put mean that you're afraid of leaving your comfort zone? That you have no desire to broaden your horizons? Are the best leaders those who move from place to place on the way to the top? The answer is no.

I entered my school and the profession as a newly qualified science teacher in 1997, against the backdrop of the newly elected Labour government's educational fervour. Over the past 18 years, I have progressed through the ranks and gained invaluable experience in both middle and senior leadership. Each role has required me to adapt and learn new ways of doing things - as I would if I'd moved to another school.

I would argue that growth in leadership is about being provided with the right opportunities, as well as seeking them out for yourself. This can be achieved in one place. Over the years, the headteacher and governors of my school have sought to retain me and have kept me motivated with new challenges. At the same time, I have recognised that working in a very large comprehensive with a sixth form has given me experience of a diverse range of learners and has broadened my portfolio of leadership strategies.

Of course, I do acknowledge that there can be inherent risks in remaining in one place, not just for leaders but also for the organisation as a whole. The most significant of these is what I describe as the "monocular" culture. By this, I mean that pervading sense that there is only one way of doing things and that there is nothing to be learned from looking elsewhere.

Leaders who have worked in only one school can often be exposed to this criticism and it is important to address it by adopting outward-facing approaches in the way they lead.

Here are some suggestions based on my experience:

Take a look at yourself

Effective self-evaluation is the lifeblood of a successful organisation and its leaders. Change happens when someone questions the established way of doing things. Often, those who succeed you will challenge your legacy by bringing a new perspective to the job. As a long-serving employee of one school, you will need to be prepared to critique your own past and lead further renewal.

Build professional networks

Not having worked directly in other schools does not prevent you from gaining insight into how other organisations operate, or from understanding their cultures. I have been able to establish links with a number of colleagues across a broad range of schools through our association with organisations such as Pixl (Partners in Excellence) and the SSAT schools network. My professional learning, especially the National Professional Qualification for Headship, has given rise to a number of useful contacts. Taking the opportunity to visit schools, spend time in their classrooms and engage in dialogue with staff is always a worthwhile and enriching experience.

Engage in community leadership

No school leader can work in isolation, and for those who have worked in a single institution, it is important to engage with community work at a system level. Leading projects alongside primary colleagues and working in local schools through an education improvement partnership have enabled me to achieve this.

Keep up to date

Whatever your preferred form of media, knowing what is going on in the global educational village is going to help you broaden your perspective.

If you do all of these things, staying in one school should not be a barrier to career progression. I have recently started seeking a headship post in other institutions and my one-school experience has not yet been a bar to being considered a credible applicant. More importantly, when governors and interviewers outline the important attributes for school leadership, they are just as applicable to someone who has worked in one school as they are to someone who has worked in 10. In the end, attitudes and capacities matter far more.

David Hall is assistant headteacher at Bay House School in Hampshire

`You have to balance your commitment with a range of experiences'

There is no single path to becoming a great school leader and having experienced only a single school is unlikely to block the path to headship. However, we have to be realistic: staying in one place is unlikely to be a major selling point.

The suggestion David makes about keeping an outward-facing approach is sound advice for aspiring leaders. It becomes increasingly powerful when combined with the benefits of professional development that come from experience in other schools.

There is little that can replicate the professional challenge of changing schools and establishing oneself in a new leadership role, with new colleagues and a new context.

To rise to the challenge and demonstrate great outcomes in a new organisation is a clear sign of skilled leadership. It also replicates the task that a headteacher will be expected to face as they take on the leadership of a new school.

There are many benefits to proving one's leadership skills in a range of contexts before applying for headship. For example, it shows that your skills are transferable and demonstrates a willingness to embrace change. It also broadens one's professional outlook and awareness. It can be a welcome confidence boost, proving that success in one school wasn't a fluke.

However, the essence of a great school leader is one who puts the students first and who pledges a decent amount of time to a school before moving on; the fly-by-night careerist with five schools in five years will gain little from such rapid change and they will also give little in return.

Balance your commitment to students with a range of experiences and your career will take care of itself.

Tim Plumb is headteacher at Woolwich Polytechnic School in London

`My critical eye wasn't blinkered'

I became headteacher in January 2015, having started here as a class teacher approximately 10 years ago and rising through the ranks to key stage leader, assistant headteacher, deputy headteacher and, finally, headteacher.

My passion for our school and community was so embedded that, although other headships were on offer, I was determined that this was the school I wanted to take even further forward - I certainly wasn't ready to leave. Knowing the school so well enabled a seamless transition for children, parents and staff, and it has been business as usual since Day 1. However, as with any school, moving forward means that changes have had to occur.

Being so close to the school hasn't blinkered my critical eye. Rather, I was in a position to immediately implement changes as there was no "getting to know you" period.

As staff, children and parents already knew me, there was a strong feeling of trust that allowed these changes to occur without fear or insecurity - in fact, it created a tide of excitement through the school.

My position is possibly even more unusual as I also live in the local community. However, nothing gives me greater pleasure than knowing that I am investing my time in the future generation of this wonderful place.

Erika Biddlecombe is headteacher at St James' CE Primary School in Hampshire

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