'Principals in other countries look at our school leaders in admiration and envy'

9th November 2016 at 13:06
UK school leadership
Enormous improvements have been made and heads deserve to be reminded of this

Ofsted chief Sir Michael Wilshaw gave a positive assessment of the progress of the English education system last week, citing improvements by school leaders over the past 20 years, leading to the high proportion of good and outstanding grades.

To give just one indicator of improvement, nearly 60 per cent of 16-year-olds now get at least five good GCSEs, compared with less than 20 per cent in the mid-1990s.

The attainment of the children of immigrants in England – led by the big improvement in London – has also increased hugely. In most European countries, these children do far worse than non-immigrants.

Sir Michael said: "[In England] our schools are remarkable escalators of opportunity. Whatever cultural tensions exist outside school, race and religion are not treated as handicaps inside them. All children are taught equally. And, contrary to tabloid claims, non-immigrant children do not suffer; rather the reverse."

The chief inspector described schools as "great forces for social cohesion".

He praised headteachers for these concrete achievements, which he believed should be more widely celebrated. Many exceptional heads have transformed schools that were previously in desperate straits, he said, with "outstanding comprehensive schools delivering for children of all abilities".

School leaders envied 

In a book published this week, The School Leadership Journey, I reflect on the immense changes – and improvements – in UK schools since I joined a school leadership team in January 1974, and on the lessons I have learned on the way.

It is an optimistic book, underpinned by the belief that innovative values-led school leadership is as possible today as it was when I was a head in the 1980s and 1990s. And that is in spite of increased responsibility, accountability and vulnerability of school leaders – and heads in particular.

In the book, I set out 12 behaviours I have observed in successful leaders in many different school contexts. These point to ways in which values-based proactive leadership can make a lasting difference to the lives of the young people in our schools and to the professional experience of the staff who teach them.

School principals in other countries look with admiration and envy at the job done by school leaders in the UK, as I found when I spoke to them directly.

During my time as general secretary of ASCL, I attended seven international education conferences. My lasting impression was the high regard in which school leadership in the UK is held across the world.

Our autonomy and the breadth of our decision-making are widely envied, as are our innovation and creativity. The pastoral support systems and range of extra-curricular activities are admired. School leaders in other countries would love to have the opportunities that we have to work beyond our own school.

An OECD report in 2012 placed UK headteachers at the top of its leadership index for the extent to which their jobs related to the improvement of pedagogy, teaching quality, student progress and curriculum.

In the areas of activity that OECD believes make the greatest impact on student success, UK heads are an example to the rest of the developed world.

We have much to learn from school leadership in other countries, but it is good to remember that there are many aspects of leadership in the UK that they seek to emulate.

While government ministers in London frequently introduce changes based on practice in other countries, those countries are looking to the UK for the quality of its school leadership.

It is good that Sir Michael has recognised this publicly. Schools have improved massively over my professional lifetime and school leaders and teachers deserve to be reminded of this, even as they seek to improve the system still further.

John Dunford is chair of Whole Education, a former secondary head, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders and national pupil premium champion. He tweets as @johndunford

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