Helping school leaders to keep improving

Tom Rees, executive director of school leadership at Ambition Institute discusses how those in leadership roles can continue to improve and grow 

Last week I was involved in a panel debate at the launch of Ambition Institute entitled ‘How can we help leaders to keep getting better?’ This organisation is committed to sparking conversations in the sector. We want to challenge thinking about teacher and school leader development, and be challenged in return. Everyone benefits when we share and debate ideas.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this question recently and have had the opportunity to work with colleagues who will publish more around this in the next few months. But, for now, here’s one of the arguments I think we should consider – the main thrust of my contribution to the panel. I want to argue that our conception of school leadership, and the narrative that surrounds it, has its roots in the theory of transformational leadership, a term first referred to in Downton’s Rebel Leadership (1973), and then separately described by James MacGregor Burns in 1978.  I think that this narrative has become unhelpful, and we could think more carefully about both the purpose of leadership in schools and how we conceptualise their work. 

As our interim CEO, Melanie Renowden, said ahead of our launch, improving teaching and school leadership is the best way to make sure every pupil gets a great education; no other aspects of the school system have as much influence on pupil achievement, particularly the achievement of pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds; that’s why it’s so important that we have this conversation. 

In order for us to look at how we might be able to develop leadership in schools moving forward, it’s pertinent to look back at the journey of school leadership as a concept. I believe that the rise of the leadership movement, underpinned by ideas related to the theory of transformational leadership, has become the orthodoxy in schools. It’s worth reflecting that it hasn’t always been like this; ‘school leadership’ hasn’t always been a ‘thing’.  

Just 15 years ago I was a KS2 co-ordinator, not a phase leader, I was paid management points, not a TLR and we had an SMT, not an SLT. The language we use to describe leaders in our schools has changed. 

The use of the term ‘leadership’ in education is discussed in more detail here by Connolly, James and Fertig (2017), who describe how transformational leadership has been widely advocated in education and how it is asserted that for schools to improve, they need to change, and bringing about change is a leadership act/practice. 

So, I think we should scrutinise some of the ideas that have roots in transformational leadership and think harder about the specific things we want the senior staff in our schools to know and be able to do. 

A ‘transactional’ activity

School leadership as a ‘transformational’ activity puts the emphasis on change being the driver of success and the main purpose of leadership as creating a vision, motivating people through relationships and influence towards change. Is this really the optimum way to run a school? 

Interested to find out more about the language surrounding school leaders, I looked at the top four headteacher adverts on TES the week before we launched to see what schools were looking for. I found that leadership is, generally, described by three adjectives.  

The first advert wanted a dynamic, innovative, strong leader with enthusiasm and the ability to inspire and motivate. The second was looking for a dynamic, inspirational and enthusiastic leader; in the first line of the person specification it said the successful candidate should be sensitive, imaginative, motivational and innovative. 

The third wanted an inspirational, warm and charismatic leader – someone who was visionary, had outstanding interpersonal skills, and who would embrace a child-centric approach to every decision. The fourth also wanted a dynamic, motivational and inspiring new headteacher who also had the determination and talent to inspire. That they should be able to deliver a strategic vision and be an excellent ‘leader of people’. 

The first thing to say is that I have never yet met a human being who can possibly claim to be all of the things these adverts ask for. The second thing is that I’m not sure that being ‘dynamic, innovative and motivational’ are, necessarily, the most important traits when looking for people to run our schools – they aren’t necessarily bad things, just not useful proxies for effective leadership.

The accountability system too, it would seem, admires dynamic and inspirational leaders. If you read the Ofsted reports of outstanding schools you can find similar language. Often the reports praise the leaders’ enthusiasm and drive or, perhaps, their visionary or dynamic approaches. 

Conversely, when you read the Ofsted reports of inadequate schools, the language used to describe leadership is different. More often, you read that leaders have focused on the wrong things, that they were too generous in their self-evaluation, that they haven’t held people properly to account or that they haven’t responded appropriately to important concerns. I have yet to read an Ofsted report that says the school failed because leaders weren’t dynamic, inspiring or enthusiastic enough.  

The trap of genericism?

I think about these images of the leaders that we seek, and wonder if they are helpful. It feels like we’re confused about what the substance of school leadership really is. What about the thoughtful leaders? What about the knowledgeable and intelligent leaders? What about ethical and experienced leaders whose experience and expertise make them best placed to make important, in-the-moment, high stakes decisions? 

What too of pragmatic leaders? Those who recognise the tensions between what they would achieve, given infinite time and resources, and the reality of what they are able to do with the time they have? And, also, generic abilities such as being a ‘leader of people’ or ‘being able to implement a strategic vision’. This falls into the trap of genericism, which suggests that personality traits, and generic competencies, trump expertise and experience.  

Above all, what about the knowledge school leaders need to make informed and sensible decisions? It feels like we’ve overlooked the technical know-how, tacit knowledge and in-depth understanding of the people and organisation that is essential for any manager or leader to be successful. As someone described on Twitter recently, the most inspiring leader they ever met was simply ‘awesomely capable’. 

Firstly, this type of language can deter very capable and smart senior staff from wanting to progress for fear of never being able to live up to the expectations of the role; I mean, who could genuinely claim to be all these things when constructing an application against the person specification? 

Secondly, the notion of almost super-human, or heroic, leadership – and an expectation to ‘go the extra mile’ all the time – could be part of the reason we have a system approaching burnout. A teacher tapp survey recently told us that middle leaders (who are the large majority of leaders in the country, and the engine room of our schools) are not only primarily class teachers, they are also sending more than 30 emails a day, spending three hours a week marking, and 65% are dissatisfied with their leisure time. As Laura McInerney summarised, it’s ‘no picnic’ being a middle leader in our system at the moment. 

Thirdly, the emphasis of transformational leaders suggests that leadership is something different from being in the classroom; it’s like once we get to thinking about progressing our career, we should leave our core business of teaching behind and focus on this other stuff called leadership. This is at odds with recent research, such as that from Amanda Goodall, which suggests that the most successful leaders are those who could still do the jobs of their direct reports if they had to. Building on a convincing body of evidence, Goodall argues that it’s technical experts who make great leaders, not general managers or leaders who aren’t in tune with the core business of the organisation. 

Finally, the idea of generic ‘transformational’ competencies overlooks the challenge of transfer, and assumes that practices or people can be easily parachuted into other contexts and settings. As we know, solutions in one school are rarely picked up and simply replicated in another setting; answers to complex problems can depend, very much, on the subject, phase and context. 

In summary, I think school leadership shouldn’t be a club reserved for the charismatic, the extrovert and the dynamic. We need to think harder about the specific problems that school leaders face and how we can help them to tackle these issues. In particular, we should place greater emphasis on the domain-specific knowledge that school leaders need so that they can make decisions, and solve problems, from a position of expertise. In order to do this, we should be cautious about viewing school leadership as a transformational activity. 

One thing is certain – we need to get this right if we’re going to give all children the opportunity to thrive, no matter what their background. 

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