Choosing the right path

Written by: HTU | Published:

These are times of great fluidity for primary schools. For some heads, change represents opportunity; for others it is a cause of unease and confusion. Anne Evans, chief executive of leadership charity HTI, discusses the choices available to heads

As one of the country’s leading providers of professional development for school leaders, HTI talks and works with thousands of heads every year, so we are acutely aware of their challenges and concerns. These three scenarios are typical of the reactions we encounter from primary heads to the changing education landscape:

- You have been successfully leading a single primary school and have no aspiration to widen your remit. Then along comes a host of new structures: academies, free schools, clusters, federations. Your comfortable status quo is rocked. What should you do?

- You are the head of an under-performing primary school but you and your staff are working hard to turn things around and making progress. You want to take a creative approach, but suddenly you are forced down the academy route and the rug is pulled from under your feet. You are sceptical of the financial benefits, creativity is overridden by extra maths and English and your dreams are under threat.

- You lead an outstanding school and despite local resistance you are convinced that converting to academy status is the right thing to do for your pupils. Additional funding will allow you take on more staff and get that creative curriculum going now, rather than in a year’s time. But with no other role models to follow and next to no support, the process is an uphill struggle.

Three different scenarios; three different reactions; one common factor: each head wants to do the best they can for their pupils, staff and local community.

On the one hand there is the lure of being able to shape your own future without top-down intervention and diktats (although successful schools already feel they are in charge of their own destiny). On the other, there is the fear of the unknown and lack of guidance, support and administrative structure to implement change. Not least, there is the nagging worry that your decision may adversely impact on schools which, through choice or lack of it, remain within local authority control. And perhaps the biggest worry of all is what happens if things go wrong?

Add into the melting pot the introduction of free schools, more collaboration and the government’s determination to drive through improvements in quality of teaching and attainment and it is easy to see why there is so much uncertainty and angst over what to do for the best.

Courageous leadership

So what are the implications for school leadership development?

It takes courageous leadership to plunge into the unknown. This has spurred us to review our own leadership development portfolio and refocus our programmes on the priorities and challenges school leaders face.

At the end of September we are co-hosting an event with the National Association of Head Teachers to explore exactly what courageous leadership means, how other schools are tackling leadership in this new turbulent era and the choices that need to be made. It is intended as a helpful platform for debate, an opportunity to step back and take stock, but what school leaders really need is practical support in bringing courageous leadership to bear on all these challenges, choices and, for some, perceived threats.

The starting point, before making any sort of investment in training, is a sound needs analysis. Where are you now? Where do you want to be? What are your strengths and weaknesses? What are your skills development needs? Looking at these issues objectively when the entire system is in a state of flux can be difficult without outside support.

Using our 3D (Dialogue, Diagnostic, Design) programme, we have worked with a number of primary schools, each operating in very different circumstances and facing its own distinctive set of challenges, to plot a strategically sound way forward which is owned by key staff.

Developing the next generation of leaders

One primary school, part of an innovative learning community set up in 2006, faced the challenge of improving its Ofsted rating from “satisfactory”. Having gone through the teething pains of setting up a new school, the headteacher believed that developing the leadership skills and potential of her ambitious young staff would not only help to achieve this, but also create a legacy model for future staff.

Five young teachers worked with a 3D consultant over a 12 month period, building self-awareness and emotional intelligence, developing their coaching and mentoring skills, learning from other schools and extending their capacity to lead change and teams more effectively. At the heart of this bespoke programme was a parental engagement project – chosen by the participants because it was an area that needed attention – which galvanised the team and gave them focus.

One year on, the headteacher has a team with maturing leadership qualities, systems in place to support future school and leadership development and aspiring young leaders who are not afraid to challenge senior management. Parental attitudes, perceptions and engagement have been transformed.

Key to the success of 3D – a feature noted retrospectively by the participants – is that the identification of problems and solutions comes from the team members themselves. As one participant put it: “We were led without knowing it.”

Changing role for school governors

School governors – the unsung heroes of the education system – are also feeling the impact of change. A recent CfBT Education Trust report highlighted that the link between effective school governing and pupil attainment is much stronger in primary than secondary schools. It is arguably even more important for primary school governors to have political awareness, the opportunity for strategic debate and additional support to help them fulfil their expanding responsibilities.

We recently worked with the governors and senior management of an independent day school, rated outstanding by Ofsted, to help them plan for maintaining the momentum. The headteacher was determined that the school’s success should not be an excuse for complacency. He wanted his governors to be part of an exercise to broaden thinking, extend their vision and map out the future.

Using the 3D model, we planned a full development day to celebrate success, consider stakeholder viewpoints and explore future development needs. Together, governors and senior management identified key priorities which are now incorporated into the school’s five year plan. It was a rare opportunity for governors and school leaders to work together in a shared professional development exercise, focusing on strategic concerns rather than the day-to-day practical issues which dominated routine governor meetings.

Although there was a level of scepticism among governors before the event, all left feeling that it had been an important benchmark point in the school’s future development. Perhaps more importantly, the day broke down barriers and gave governors a platform for expressing their views and generating ideas. This was entirely down to skilful, non-intrusive facilitation.

Supporting conversion to academy status

For primary schools, converting to academy status is a completely new arena. As one headteacher is discovering, the process calls for an unfamiliar but vitally important set of skills.

Diana Owen is a National Leader of Education (NLE) and executive headteacher of two primary schools in Nottingham. It was while she was on a one week intensive professional development experience for NLEs organised by HTI that she made a firm decision to take the schools down the academy route because she wanted the opportunity to “make a difference to more children’s lives”. Now she is leading a newly formed academy trust as one of three founding partners, with more schools from within and outside the region already expressing interest in joining too.

“It looks as though the momentum is going to grow quickly, so I needed rapid access to expertise in crucial areas such as marketing, finance and planning support services.”

The connection with HTI through the NLE development week was timely. We have coordinated mentoring and coaching support from within and outside the organisation to support Ms Owen’s journey to academy status.

“I certainly wouldn’t have been able to take things forward with so much confidence were it not for the national perspective gained during that week, or the invaluable support I am now receiving through HTI.”

More than professional development

Sometimes a school needs more than professional development, mentoring and coaching; it needs something to facilitate a complete culture change. One of the great criticisms of education policy in recent years has been that rigidity, prescription and a relentless focus on targets have squeezed out creativity and encouraged risk aversion. Our former President, Lord Jones, articulated concerns on behalf of employers and society in a widely publicised issues paper he wrote for us in 2007 called Cotton Wool Kids.

Our response was to launch Go4it, the first national awards scheme to recognise, celebrate and reward schools which promote a true adventure for learning.

More than 150 schools have now achieved Go4it status, including a record number of primaries this year. Headteachers tell us that Go4it is not only a unifying symbol for the well-rounded, creative education they want to give children, but also gives them permission to do things differently and swim against the tide.

We are beginning to see tangible evidence of the impact of Go4it on pupil attainment. One of the most notable examples is St Mary’s Primary School in Kidderminster, which had earned the dubious distinction of being labelled the worst school in the UK.

Deputy headteacher Joel Marshall had used Go4it as a catalyst to transform his previous school and was pinning his hopes on it achieving a similar transformation at St Mary’s. The new leadership team faced multiple challenges: the school was in special measures; only seven per cent of year 6 pupils achieved national expectations; pupils had high levels of special needs, behaviour was poor and permanent exclusion rates were high; 75 per cent of parents were unemployed, many of them long-term.

The leadership team used Go4it as a “licence” to take risks. They rewrote the curriculum and employed the best teachers despite financial constraints. Children take part in activities which develop their employability skills through an initiative called Do Something Different. The school has rocketed out of special measures, attainment levels have soared to 64 per cent, the quality of teaching is now no less than “good” (“outstanding” in many instances) and children are more confident and better behaved. All of these achievements earned the school a place in the TES Outstanding Senior Leadership Team awards this year.

When Mr Marshall told colleagues about his new job at St Mary’s, the news was usually greeted with a sharp intake of breath. Now schools go to St Mary’s to share their expertise and Mr Marshall is more than happy to concede that without Go4it, the school would never have emerged from special measures as it did.

• Anne Evans is chief executive of HTI (Heads, Teachers & Industry), an independent charity that builds an understanding and co-operation between business, education and government to enhance school leadership and improve the employability skills and life chances of young people. It was set up 25 years ago by business leaders wishing to bring the education and business sectors closer to develop a mutual understanding about employability. Further information about HTI’s leadership development programmes and Go4it can be found at or telephone 024 7641 0104.

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