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Leading by example – a lost art?

Neville Beischer, co-headteacher, Wright Robinson College, explains the process and impact of leading by example at every level in the school

After 29 years of leading one of the largest 11-16 inner city comprehensive schools in the country, I can finally see the wood for the trees. If you want to get to an Ofsted judgement of ‘outstanding’ and improve your school, you must engage the most powerful resource that any school has: the student body. So many schools now are obsessed with chasing good exam results that they fail to appreciate the power that leading by example can have in school improvement.

Across the country, so many new academies and schools that started from scratch have been less effective than they should have been, because they have failed to understand this power. Let me explain what I mean. At our last inspection three years ago we went from a judgement of ‘requires improvement’ to ‘outstanding’: one of only seven schools to achieve this nationally. What struck the seven inspectors over the two-day visit was the powerful behaviour evident in both staff and students of leading by example. Their report included “all staff model respect and strong values; consequently, pupil behaviour is impeccable”; and “The pupils’ exemplary conduct around the site is matched by outstanding attitudes to learning in the classroom.”

They went on to report that “the school provides an oasis of calm, and promotes mutual respect for all. Value is placed on being kind, respectful, and contributing to the community. Many pupils have leadership roles, which enable them to make a strong contribution to this aim. Year 11 prefects are highly regarded and set strong examples for younger pupils.”

We are all aware of the notion that we are changed by what we see, so it makes sense to ensure that staff and pupils model the values that you want younger pupils to see and absorb. They can then emulate them in your school and community. This is where the immense power for good that the concept of leading by example – so well known, but not so often applied comprehensively – can have in schools.

This explains why it is so hard for new academies and schools built from scratch, because they have no senior student role models to influence the rest of the student body.

SSAT Student Leadership Accreditation

In our college the staff are, in my view, incredibly professional. And the year 11 cohort are the best behaved, hardest working, best dressed, most mature and responsible pupils in college. As of course they have to be if the concept is going to work.

Students in all years have leadership roles

Our role models do not stop at year 11. Our whole-school leadership programme has 300 year 10 junior prefects, 160 year 9 young leaders, 150 year 8 pals and 120 year 7 buddies all being encouraged to lead by example. Just imagine the positive effects that this can have on the ethos and culture of a school which aims to build young people’s self-belief, self-esteem and confidence.

As I tell parents, when children get to age 14, they will no longer be the most powerful influence in their lives, their peers will be. Therefore, positive peer influence, which is behind the concept of leading by example, is to be ignored at any school’s peril. It is telling and pertinent that SSAT’s current campaign is to ‘fight for deep social justice’.

SSAT believes that part of this is that, for schools to achieve social justice, every student should take responsibility for his or her own learning and behaviour. Enjoy confidence in oneself as a learner, display maturity, with all relationships marked by mutual respect. This has much in common with the concept of leading by example and our values at Wright Robinson, which are ‘strength of character, sense of responsibility, teamwork and mutual respect for one another’.

This was confirmed in Ofsted’s report, which also stated “Leaders have ensured that core values are installed across the college and this creates an inclusive and harmonious community.”

At the end of the day, it is a shame that more schools and indeed other organisations have not fully adopted the concept of leading by example. I believe that is truly the lost art of leadership.

SSAT has long been an advocate for championing and celebrating the leadership skills developed by learners in and out of school. The SSAT Student Leadership Accreditation scheme – available at no additional cost to SSAT members – formally recognises students’ leadership skills, encompassing all activities they are engaged in whether it’s in the classroom, across the school, or in the wider community.

Learn more about the accreditation

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