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Chief with an eye on results

Steve Munby, the new boss of the National College for School Leadership, meets the press. Nic Barnard reports.

If Steve Munby had a catchphrase it would be: "Don't get me wrong." The words crop up time and again as the new chief executive of the National College for School Leadership meets the press.

Don't get him wrong - heads have a lot of good things to say about the college, he says, even as he outlines a string of criticisms. Don't get him wrong - plenty of top heads work with the college, even though they need to bring more of them in.

And don't get him wrong - being a head is a great job, a great privilege, even if too many heads suffer burn-out and not enough deputies want to take that step up.

Mr Munby, 48, arrives at Nottingham with a reputation for collaboration and with the successful turnaround of Knowsley local education authority behind him. He describes his new job as one of the best in education.

But it is also clear he takes his outsider status - and last year's end-to-end review of the college - as a licence to cast a fresh eye over its work. And his comments on the state and status of the college are based on his own personal canvassing of school leaders.

Mr Munby spent his first few weeks, since he started in March, personally ringing 500 heads, and followed it up with a series of conferences now taking place around the country. By the final conference, in Nottingham on July 9, he hopes to have addressed - and heard from - some 1,500 people.

From there he begins writing the college's new corporate plan.

But if he is deliberately vague when considering the college's future, he is very clear on the direction he wishes to take. He plans a major restructuring, a switch to commissioning leadership programmes rather than delivering them, and a tighter focus on results.

Mr Munby arrives in Nottingham at a time when the college can be satisfied while needing to take a step up. As his canvassing demonstrated, the verdict on the NCSL's first five years is broadly positive.

"Only one of the 500 thought it should close," he notes wryly.

"There's a lot of goodwill out there and positive feeling about the college. But it needs to become even better. School leaders deserve an outstanding organisation."

Similarly upbeat was last year's review, commissioned by the Department for Education and Skills, which praised its "can-do" culture and noted that it had quickly racked up "very significant, even remarkable achievements".

Despite that, it raised fears that the college was losing focus, developing too many initiatives, and failing to tap the skills of the most outstanding school leaders.

Mr Munby agrees. He believes it should focus on three key challenges facing school leaders: the Children Act agenda; the problem of finding the next generation of heads; and the need to give school leaders the skills to operate beyond their own school, in the new federations and networks that are increasingly becoming a feature of the education system.

More importantly, perhaps, he talks of returning a sense of "clear moral purpose" to the college.

He says: "We are here to develop existing and future school leaders.

Leadership is one of the single biggest factors in improving schools and making a difference to children's lives.

"As soon as we forget that, we lose our moral purpose. Everyone who works here has to hold on to that. That should be why they get up in the morning."

He has also already started work on a "score card" to measure the impact of programmes on pupil attainment.

"I don't think the college has been focused sufficiently on outcomes," he says. "There are a variety of reasons for that, partly because it's so difficult to do."

The availability of better data means the college is now in a better position to evaluate the difference it makes in classrooms.

There is understandably some nervousness at the college. He says there are no plans for redundancies among its 250 employees, although he notes that a number of staff are on fixed-term contracts.

His starting point is that from September 2006, "large chunks" of provision, including entire programmes such as the NPQH, will be farmed out.

"Our role will be definitely less delivery and more strategy. That's done," he says.

That will not necessarily mean one giant provider delivering the NPQH across the country. There could be a network of providers, from colleges, giant private-sector organisations or even small consortia of schools.

School leaders should, he believes, find themselves following programmes that more closely fit their own context. He criticises the "one-size-fits-all" model that sees no difference in the challenges facing the head of a large urban secondary and the head of a tiny rural primary.

The college must ensure there is no dip in quality, and that school leaders and potential leaders have the same entitlement.

One telling comment in last year's review was that the school leaders least impressed with the NCSL were also the most successful heads. Ray Tarleton, head of South Dartmoor community college in Devon and chair of the NCSL-funded Leadership Network, says the college has done great things for middle leaders but not enough for serving heads.

"I would ask Steve Munby who is his target audience? Does he want to capture the elite, the ones with the power to transform schools?"

That perhaps finds an echo in criticisms of the NPQH raised in Mr Munby's own ring-around; that it was too easy, too much about management and not enough about vision.

He has already started addressing this issue, hosting a seminar for "executive heads" - the leaders of some of the emerging federations and collaborative networks of schools.

So what can heads expect from the new NCSL? At Knowsley, as today, Mr Munby began by gathering everyone - heads, chairs of governors, LEA officials, councillors, children's representatives, voluntary-sector leaders - at Anfield, home of Liverpool FC, to agree a vision.

He repeated the exercise every year. But what really won Knowsley kudos - and beacon status - was the way it implemented the Children Act.

"We had three local partnerships across the borough, chaired by heads, involving social services, health, education, welfare, the whole range.

They each agreed a plan to ensure vulnerable children's needs were addressed. That was then resourced and implemented."

Don't get him wrong, he adds, he won't be making a play to take over children's services.

But he says: "Schools are the one universal service. If you don't have schools at the heart of the children's services agenda, something is wrong."

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