Taking the long view of school leadership

Written by: Liam Donnison | Published:

Awakening the talents of the senior leadership team will unlock the long-term success of primary schools. Former primary executive headteacher Vin Osbaldeston speaks to Liam Donnison

Vin Osbaldeston knows just how vital a strong senior leadership team is to a school’s long-term success.

When he became head of Freshfield Primary in Formby near Liverpool – a school he later led as an executive headteacher – it was, in his estimation, “coasting”.

The situation was in large part due to the previous stewardship of a head who was very operational in their approach, together with a senior leadership team that was made up of good, well-meaning people who were only carrying out low-level management responsibilities with little focus on school improvement, explained Ms Osbaldeston, who now works as a consultant supporting primary school leadership teams.

“It was clear that a change of culture was required, together with a reorganisation of staffing at all levels,” he added.

Mr Osbaldeston set about his programme for change by first establishing two priorities: to change what he regarded as a complacent culture and nurture a senior team. “It was my intention to identify potential leaders among the staff and work with them to re-energise and move forward,” he continued. “My view is that leadership centres on the development of others and I strove to build capacity in each area of school life.

“In my view, a lack of vision and organisational structures had resulted in staff routinely doing their own thing and this had led to variable expectations and standards. My experience told me that each member of staff does make a difference, either positive or negative, to the school’s function. It was clear that some members of staff were upbeat and had a thirst for knowledge, order and vision and I wanted to provide opportunities for these people and indeed the whole staff to flourish.”

The change programme had a major impact on the school’s fortunes and Freshfield achieved a run of outstanding inspection judgements.

“When the school was first inspected under my headship the senior leadership team had been together for less than two years,” Mr Osbaldeston said. “The HMI leading the inspection spoke to the senior team for an hour-and-a-half about a wide range of school issues. At the end of the meeting he took me aside and said that the most impressive demonstration of the school’s leadership was that for most of the meeting I had the confidence to let the other members of the team do the talking. Two of the three members of the team are now leading their own schools. I think that demonstrates the power of long-term succession planning.”

So what underpinned Mr Osbaldeston’s approach?

Nurture a culture in which everyone’s voice counts

“It sounds simple and, done carefully, it is. This included ensuring that the message of positive progress was available to everyone. For example, at the weekly staff briefing I reminded everyone of what the priorities were so that it was always in the mind’s eye. I also introduced a rule that there was no room for negative words, because there was always someone who you could work with to solve a challenge. I tried to ensure this mindset permeated every corner of the school, so that issues were identified, and explanations sought. This culture created the belief that everyone’s view counted towards the common goal. I found that the emergent leaders tended to thrive in this environment because they were eager to be involved and take up the challenge.”

Spend time spotting strengths in your colleagues

“This was important because effective leaders need at least 30 key skills and I knew I couldn’t be good at all of them all of the time. By letting go and giving others real responsibility, I found that this gave emergent leaders more opportunities to stretch themselves. Staff found that their decision-making had real impact, and this spurred them on to achieve more. Because the school’s mission was always clearly in view they could see that they genuinely contributed to the school’s progress.”

Keep the list of school priorities short, succinct and time-specific

“It wasn’t a case of putting blinkers on the staff, rather showing them the clear way forward. With well-defined pathways, I found that I didn’t always have to lead because others were seeking out the next steps. I found it effective to mentor staff through regular dialogue so that we could quickly tackle any barriers. I made sure that staff had time to work towards their objectives. Time each week directing, nurturing, challenging, reflecting and celebrating with emergent leaders was crucial to add energy to the changing culture of the school.”

Praise staff for their efforts

“People grow with words of thanks and I’ve taken much satisfaction from recognising and celebrating the efforts of colleagues who have improved learning.”

Encourage risk-taking

“You have to accept a certain level of risk when you let others lead, but this can in turn encourage developing leaders to take risks too. And when you combine this risk-taking with balanced, constructive feedback you create an effective platform for success. This allowed emergent leaders to move from a position of responsibility to one of accountability. By encouraging emergent leaders to become experts in their own right and use CPD to hone their practices a new confidence emerged, with staff realising that they owned their school’s growth. Eventually I reached the time when I rarely led a CPD session because other staff were taking the initiative. My role developed into that of the coach.” 

  • Liam Donnison is director of Best Practice Network. Vin Osbaldeston’s school leadership insights form part of the new suite of National Professional Qualifications (NPQs), developed and delivered by Outstanding Leaders Partnership in partnership with Best Practice Network. For details, visit www.outstandingleaders.org/qualifications. Mr Osbaldeston can be contacted at osbaldestonv@gmail.com

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