National Leaders of Education

Written by: Cathy Longhurst | Published:
Image: iStock

Headteacher Cathy Longhurst discusses the process of becoming a National Leader of Education, what is involved in the role, and the benefits that being an NLE can have

National Leaders of Education (NLEs) are officially accredited and appointed as system leaders to both support and improve the quality of education and leadership in schools across the country.

Like myself, they are serving headteachers who are all too aware of the pressures and direct challenges that many schools face today. They are also well placed to be able to help raise standards for children by providing the right support to schools and other education leaders, who may find themselves in unexpected but challenging circumstances.

As a result of the designation, the headteacher’s school essentially becomes a National Support School (NSS). This means that the entire staff can be called upon by the NLE at any time to support the specific requirements in other schools that match their areas of specialism and expertise.

In our school, this has involved our trained school-to-school support teachers, the senior leadership team, members of the office team and at times members of the premises team too.

Opening classrooms to other schools

The National College for Teaching and Leadership’s application process to become an NLE is thorough and detailed with strict criteria. I qualified by meeting the criteria and also through my experience as acting head at a primary school I previously worked at.

The school found itself in very challenging circumstances after a long period of absence and ultimate resignation of the headteacher, which meant I was seconded to the school for four terms.

Shortly after I arrived, the school had an Ofsted inspection that judged us to be inadequate and we were placed into the special measures category.

However, progress at the school was rapid and as a result it was removed from the category within just six months. The school is now judged to be a good school – which is a great improvement.

I received my NLE designation in December 2016 and attended the induction training in January 2017 but it hasn’t changed the way we work and operate in my current school. We have been a National Support School for five years as the previous headteacher was an NLE and the school was designated the role under her leadership.

We have a number of experienced teachers that are trained in school-to-school support and as such we have opened our classrooms to many colleagues from other schools who make visits to learn from good practice.

Making a difference to more children

The difference for me personally is that now I am able to broker and direct my own work and support in my own right as an NLE, which is positive for the school and in terms of making decisions.

There are many pros to the NLE scheme in my view, because through supporting others you also reflect on and improve you own practice in turn – because you are constantly evaluating your approach and processes. It is also very rewarding because you feel like you are making a real difference to more children than just those pupils in your own school.

The retention of experienced staff is also increased because they are consistently provided with new opportunities to challenge themselves and learn new news skills, such as supporting colleagues.

For example, our academy trust runs a training programme for school-to-school support teachers. This looks at the psychology of working with adults rather than children and gives them fantastic skills in observation, giving feedback and planning development for individuals and teams.

This is particularly beneficial to those amazing teachers out there who traditionally don’t want to leave the classroom but who may eventually go into leadership as a result of these new experiences.

It is also a great way to demonstrate as a headteacher how highly you value your teachers’ excellence in the classroom.

Challenges of the role

As with any initiative like this, there are challenges to consider too. We have a phrase at our school: “We will not wobble.” What that really means is we are very conscious in our decision-making that our school comes first.

For that reason, time management has to be very carefully considered and I have to be very aware of the workload of my teachers at any given point. They are always extremely flexible and happy to help but sometimes it is about knowing when to say no.

Sometimes it is difficult to walk away from another school or leader who needs your help or when a project hasn’t generated enough funding and it is not yet quite finished in providing support, but these are just some of the regular challenges we have to face.

Understanding the recurring challenges of the system is important because we learn from those situations and experiences.

The issue of funding is an on-going one, because sometimes it doesn’t stretch to the duration of the project, this often happens if the support required is an urgent case and needs to be front-loaded and that can be very disappointing for the school needing support.

Under the scheme it is possible to bid for significant sums of money from the National College for Teaching and Leadership (NCTL), but only during specific windows of opportunity. The reality of this will leave the school I am currently working with without any support for a significant length of time before the next window in September 2017, which is far from ideal.

Looking to the future

Thinking about the future, I am looking forward to making the most of these new experiences and skills. It is early days and I am just enjoying learning and putting these ideas into practice to support children in education. However, I will also undertake training very shortly to become a Pupil Premium reviewer, which I know will be invaluable in developing my own school and my role as an NLE.

Words of wisdom

For anyone considering becoming an NLE, I would say it is a big commitment because it means spending more time outside of his or her own school on a more regular basis. You need to be confident in your own leadership team, because without their expertise and support, your role as an NLE would not be possible.

Before committing to this role, it is essential that you have the leadership capacity in your own team to ensure that your school won’t “wobble” as a result. 

  • Cathy Longhurst is a National Leader of Education and also headteacher at Mandeville Primary School, part of Spiral Partnership Trust, a group of four academy schools in Hertfordshire.

Further information

National Leaders of Education: A guide for potential applicants, National College for Teaching and Leadership, March 2017:

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