Taking the lead on learning

13th November 2015 at 00:00
To support the development of your staff and pupils, get out of the office and head to the classroom

In my first term as headteacher of a school that had just been graded “requires improvement” by Ofsted, I undertook no formal observations of teaching. Instead, 16 of the teachers came to observe me.

It’s not what you’re thinking: this wasn’t an act of gross arrogance whereby I showed everyone how it should be done.

Instead, my reasons were threefold. First, I wanted to demonstrate that I was not some distant figure dictating from afar with no real grasp of what life was like on the front line. I would be teaching alongside my staff when I could and they would observe me doing so.

Second, I wanted to show that I had the same frailties as my teachers did.

Third, I wanted to model something I believe is central to successful schools: reflection on and engagement with the practice of teaching.

Be a model teacher

The primary responsibility of a headteacher is to ensure the continuous learning of all pupils and staff. My question is: how do school leaders seriously believe they can fulfil that obligation while sitting behind a desk? If they don’t model effective teaching and learning, it simply won’t happen.

If a headteacher is prepared to take a class and be observed by colleagues, they are sending out the message that the core business of the school is teaching and learning. If they reflect on their own teaching and engage in debate around it, they make that process central to the school and also a safe thing to do.

They demonstrate how to have a professional conversation about teaching – one that is non-judgemental, productive and exists in a high-trust environment. They send out the message that teaching and learning should be central topics for all conversations in schools, both informally and through formal professional learning meetings.

This approach is vital if you want your school to be successful. Don’t take my word for it: a study by researchers in New Zealand earlier this year demonstrates that in high-performing schools, headteachers engage in collaborative professional learning with staff (bit.ly/InterpersonalChallenges).

Join the conversation

How does this engagement manifest day-to-day in my school? I teach for approximately a third of the week. I regularly visit classrooms and participate in professional learning conversations with staff. These exchanges may then be shared with the staff body to model the whole-school emphasis on learning and teaching. I have even been known to have a post-lesson discussion with a teacher with the whole staff watching.

Meanwhile, professional learning meetings should be seen as an opportunity for groups of teachers and leaders to engage in learning activities and develop knowledge that can inform practice. This must include a strong engagement with research. I put my money where my mouth is on this point: more than 20 members of the teaching team at my school are engaged in master’s-level study.

You may claim that the demands of the job mean you simply don’t have time to do any of this. But school leaders should have an unrelenting focus on learning and screen out the multitude of things that detract from this. For every task, they should ask:

l How is this related to learning?

l What significant difference will this make to learning?

l How, and in which ways, will it lead to improvements in learning?

Any jobs that fall by the wayside as a result of this process should be delegated. In my case, my highly capable office staff handle everything from timetables to attendance tracking. I’m proof that it can be done. You just need to be willing to hand over control.

Distant and deskilled

School leaders have become distant from the classroom and many rarely leave their offices. These headteachers are in danger of becoming deskilled as teachers. I accept the argument that leadership in schools doesn’t necessarily have to involve teaching, especially in super-sized secondaries. But I would argue that it is preferable for heads to teach, and it is integral to the effective motivation and commitment of the staff that they do so. “Headteacher”: the clue is in the title.

Kulvarn Atwal is headteacher at Highlands Primary School in London

‘Teacher learning is key’

At Highlands Primary School, we want every one of our teachers to engage in master’s-level thinking and study because we believe that the single greatest influence on the quality of pupil learning is the quality of teaching, writes Kulvarn Atwal.

We also believe that the greatest influence on the quality of teaching is the quality of teacher learning. In our school, we want our teachers to engage in research and reflect on their practice in order to continually innovate, challenge and improve their practice. We want research-informed, reflective professionals who are able to adapt their teaching to meet the needs of current and future generations of learners.

If I include myself, 23 of the teachers at my school are engaged in master’s-level study and beyond. This is undertaken in partnership with the University of East London. Each module is part-funded by the school, and each teacher makes a significant contribution. This demonstrates a personal commitment to their growth as learners in order to be the best teachers that they can possibly be.

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