How England’s example can give US leaders a head start

22nd January 2016 at 00:00
Academic urges American educators to look across the pond for tips on creating effective school hierarchies

American educators should take lessons in school leadership from their counterparts in England, a prominent US academic has said.

US schools would particularly benefit from English-style middle-managers with areas of distinct responsibility, according to Jonathan Supovitz, co-director of the Consortium for Policy Research in Education and a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education.

Professor Supovitz points out that schools in the US still tend to be organised much as they were a century ago: a single, non-teaching principal presiding over department heads and informal teacher-leaders, who lack both authority and training.

He has researched the alternative offered by school leadership structures across the Atlantic, interviewing civil servants, teachers and union officials in England.

“Over the past 15 years, educational reformers in England have made several important revisions in how schools organise leadership, develop leaders and integrate leadership into the larger educational infrastructure,” he writes in a paper published in the journal Phi Delta Kappan ( “American policymakers and reformers can learn much from these experiences.”

Leaders of learning

Professor Supovitz highlights the fact that in the English education system, school leaders at all levels have very clearly defined roles. “Particularly striking from the US perspective is the set of explicit responsibilities for middle leaders to oversee and be accountable for teaching, learning and student behaviour in subject areas or grade levels within a school.”

This, he says, moves responsibility and support closer to the classroom. It also allows teachers to refine and develop their leadership skills at various stages of their careers.

“This approach is distinctly different from the [US] model of teacher leadership,” he writes.

Russell Hobby, general secretary of the NAHT headteachers’ union, agrees that this is one of the strengths of English school leadership. “We’ve made it very clear that it’s leadership of learning, not just administration,” he said. “You’re a leader of learning first. The administration is to support that, not an end in its own right.

“To choose the right teachers, to develop the right teachers and motivate them – that’s the most important part of the head’s job, and it’s what heads do really well.”

Sense and accountability

It is not the first time that US educationalists have tried to learn from school leadership structures in England.

Six years ago, president Barack Obama’s education team gave its blessing to a project to adapt Teaching Leaders – a scheme to increase the effectiveness of middle leaders in England’s secondary schools – for the US. A pilot of the initiative, financed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, began in 12 US regions in 2011 (

In his paper, Professor Supovitz concludes that education in England benefits from the fact that school leadership and effective teaching are key parts of the accountability system. In the US, by contrast, schools are judged purely on test performance.

“Rather than relying primarily on a test-based accountability system, England refined its school-inspection system to focus not just on the outcomes of education but the processes that produce student outcomes,” he argues.

Earlier research conducted by Karen Edge, reader in educational leadership at the UCL Institute of Education, revealed that teachers in the US were far more likely than their English counterparts to see early leadership experience – in school sports teams, for example – as relevant training for running a school.

But Professor Supovitz praises the way that English leaders are developed through a combination of professional qualifications and informal support networks. Qualifications offer an introduction to research-based and theoretical knowledge and skills, he believes. And informal leadership networks allow heads and teacher to discuss how best to deal with pressing problems of practice.

Mr Hobby, however, insists that more is needed. “As well as having the best leaders in the world, we actually ask more of them than any other school system,” he said. “So we have to keep investing in developing leaders.”


The English approach

The key components of English leadership, according to Jonathan Supovitz

Multiple leadership positions within a school, including senior and middle-level leaders.

Clearly identified levels of knowledge and skill required for each different level of leadership.

Formal and informal network opportunities, allowing for learning to be both expert-led and peer-led.

Widely recognised certification for school leaders.

Leadership function incorporated into the broader accountability system, to promote the role of leadership in school improvement.

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