Mutual benefits for benevolence

5th October 2007 at 01:00
When the call went out for headteachers to become "system leaders", working outside their own schools to improve the life chances of children at schools that are doing less well, I found it a seductive challenge.

I leapt at the opportunity and hoped to be able to make a difference in more than one school, spreading the good practices that we have developed in our own.

I started working with other schools in 2002 and have been a consultant leader since 2003, working with the leadership teams of eight primaries since then. My school is also a National Support School.

Before embarking on system leadership, I first made sure that I had the support of all those in my own school who would be directly affected by it. We talked about what it would involve in changes in role and the need for the clear internal accountability systems. It is one thing to ask someone to "act up", but unfair if they don't get the support to go with it.

I found the secret to success in working with other schools was to involve my own leadership team. It is good professional development for them, refines the practice in our own school, and is beneficial to the "client" school because their leadership teams always prefer to work with others actually doing the same job. For example, our assessment leader can talk from experience about the implementation of a rigorous individual pupil tracking system and its pitfalls.

Staff have enjoyed "stepping up" to leadership, which they might not have had the opportunity to do without our consultancy, and this has led to promotion for some. Of course, this possibility worried me as I don't want to lose good teachers! But experience tells me that if your school is known for providing good continuing professional development opportunities, then teachers will be more inclined to apply. In fact, I have retained the services of our excellent deputy precisely because she is provided with consultancy opportunities.

Unfortunately, not everything goes according to plan. Things change rapidly in schools and you can arrive to find people suddenly unavailable. Mistakes are inevitable, but from these we learn the importance of adaptability, trust and unambiguous communication.

And in my own school, I found the speed at which things moved on, and the ease with which I could have become detached, surprised me. As a colleague put it recently "you know it's time to come back when a six-year-old stares at you and asks 'who are you?'"

Our collaborations have proved mutually beneficial: it is certainly not a case of an effective head going in to sort out a school that hasn't got one, it's about working with colleagues to find solutions and raise standards.

We've forged great relationships in other schools, but most importantly we've improved the lives of children.

Sue Robinson

Headteacher of Cherry Orchard Primary in Birmingham

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