The Conversation: National College for School Leadership
Q: It's three years since you took charge at the NCSL. What kind of shape is the College in?
A: I think we're in good shape. The first thing I had to do when I got the job was to listen to the views of school leaders about the College and work with them to shape a new vision for the way forward. I spent the first two months or so telephoning 500 heads, and we then consulted with thousands of school leaders and stakeholders about what their issues were and how the college could help to address them. I think we have succeeded in re-focusing the college on its core role of school leadership development and on its moral purpose, which is to serve existing and future school leaders.
Q: Your critics might say that this could have happened more easily and cheaply, without a grand building and large staff. What do you say to those who feel the NCSL has created a centralised, bureaucratic approach to leadership development?
A: I think we are working hard towards making our provision accessible and cost-effective. However, I do honestly believe in the importance of a national college learning from the best leadership practice in English schools - and indeed across the world - and helping school leaders to access this. That is harder to do without some central co-ordination.
I think you will increasingly see a personalised approach in our provision - for example, in our leadership lathways programme, in the redesigned national professional qualification for headship (which starts this year) and in our "local solutions" approach to succession planning.
Q: You mention the NPQH. Why the overhaul?
A: NPQH has been very successful, but there were a number of reasons why it needed to change. First of all, too many people were gaining the qualification who were not going on to headship, so it was becoming a leadership development programme for senior managers rather than a qualification for headship.
Also, we now know that the most effective continuing professional development is carried out mainly in a real-work context rather than by coming out on a course or programme, so we needed to adjust the redesigned NPQH accordingly. In any case, the skills and expertise needed to be a headteacher in 2008 are, to some extent, different from what was needed in the past.
Q: When I've heard you speak, you've emphasised the need for it to feel like "our" national college. What are you doing to create a sense that it strongly belongs to the teaching profession?
A: A number of things. We have seconded about 20 heads - part-time - to support our leadership network around the country. The network exists to enable school leaders to share practice, to work together to advise the NCSL on the issues that we need to address, and pass on our policy advice to the Secretary of State. Two years ago, we had fewer than 300 members of the leadership network; we now have well over 4,000.
We are doing much more to personalise our leadership provision so that every school leader in every type of school can have something that suits them and connects with their context. On a personal level, I talk to groups of school leaders around the country every week and visit, on average, one school every week to make sure that the college is listening to the needs of school leaders.
Q: Schools are changing incredibly quickly, with new models of governance, leadership and curriculum provision. What would you like the national college's part in the history of these changing times to be when people look back on them in 10 years' time?
A: We certainly do not believe one particular model is the right model for all schools. We believe in local solutions. Our role is to help to share and disseminate emerging practice, to evaluate the impact of different models and to help future leaders to think through the issues for themselves.
As far as a legacy is concerned, my hope is that we have talented and inspirational leaders running world-class schools making a real difference to the lives and life chances of children.
Geoff Barton is headteacher of King Edward VI School in Bury St Edmunds.