Call-up time for leaders' A-team

18th November 2005 at 00:00
Steve Munby on plans to lure the best headteachers to the most challenging schools where they are seldom found, but most needed.

Leadership talent abounds in England's schools, but there is not nearly enough in our toughest and most challenging schools. If we are to bring new hope to those pupils that our system is currently failing we need to think seriously about how to persuade more of the best leaders to view success differently; to see the pinnacle of their careers as success in the toughest schools.

To make this happen we need to offer them the right incentives, which means more than just financial reward. Enhanced status and recognition is a stronger draw. That is why the National College for School Leadership has recommended setting up a register of National Leaders of Education. This designation will be awarded to outstanding leaders in challenging and complex schools and to other excellent school leaders who are willing to act as executive or partner heads for one or more schools in very challenging circumstances. We recommended to ministers that they give these people a key role in helping to lead the system and advising ministers on the future direction of education policy. We also recommended that they should have a role in developing others to become national leaders. We are very pleased that these proposals are included in the schools white paper.

While there are many children and young people in schools with very high levels of deprivation whose lives have been transformed by outstanding school leaders, there is still much to be done. There are 285 schools in special measures in England and a further 295 with serious weaknesses.

Together they are responsible for around 300,000 pupils.

There is hard evidence that these schools can be transformed by excellent leadership plus support from one or more high-capacity schools. Different models can provide support for these schools, from networks of schools working together informally to a federation led by an executive headteacher. Such approaches multiply the impact of these very good heads.

The critical resource is not just the executive headteacher but the high-capacity school as a whole. Other key staff often need to be involved, so that practices and expertise are widely shared to secure change quickly, and to build long-term capacity. This is not about the "hero-headteacher".

Moreover, it is not all one-way traffic - evidence shows that providing this support can, over time, have a very positive impact on the lead school. As initial demands on the lead school can be substantial it is essential that it has the capacity to provide that support, without putting the education of its own pupils at risk.

Leaders who take on responsibility for these very complex schools need all the support they can get and everyone should do what they can to avoid putting undue pressure on them. A common disincentive is the unrealistic expectations by others of how quickly sustained improvement can be delivered. Progress in the first year should be measured by improvements in areas such as behaviour, attendance levels, internal cohesion and basic systems. These should be seen as "green shoots" but more fundamental changes take time. Significant improvement in exam results can take more time - often longer than a year. In some schools it has been three or more years before the results take off across the curriculum.

The criteria for identifying national leaders of education will need to be clear and transparent. Having consulted widely on the development of our advice to ministers on leadership in complex schools, the national college will now work with key partners to identify these national leaders and we will also ensure appropriate support and development for leaders in complex roles. Success for the most vulnerable children and for our most challenging schools will only come when all of us in an educational leadership role regard it as our fundamental moral purpose to ensure that all children and young people experience the very best learning and well-being opportunities, no matter which school they go to.

It is time for school leaders to take collective responsibility for all children and young people in an area; time for our outstanding educators to demonstrate their leadership in our toughest schools.

Steve Munby is chief executive of the National College for School Leadership. A summary of the advice provided by NCSL to the Secretary of State on leadership in complex schools can be found on the NCSL website at: www.ncsl.org.uk

Leadership 27

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