Part II: Bringing on the Ewoks

Leadership Development

My colleague Dan Belcher’s first blog on leadership development in the UK education system discusses the past history and present predicaments faced by our sector. In this post, I will outline, based upon our upcoming ‘Labouring to Love Headship’ report, what a better future might offer in this area. I drew the longer straw of a ‘Return of the Jedi’ post in contrast to his ‘Empire Strikes Back’ one (although that was the better film, by far).

The Empire Strikes Back

Let’s be honest. Although it is great to see subsidised provision for school leaders having returned in recent years, there is a broader sense of the past decade being one of retrenchment in leadership development provision. 86% of those we surveyed who mentioned the NPQH said it was not sufficient preparation for headship, with over a third saying it was poor preparation. Anyone who has spoken to heads will not find this particularly surprising and it contrasts with the general aura of positivity around some of the newer members of the NPQ family.

If anything, though, the NPQH represents the high point of headteacher professional learning despite its limitations. Over a third of our headteacher respondents said that they had to “sink or swim” and learn “on the job” because induction is so poor. A larger proportion, four in ten, said that they had very little or no formalised support to help them once in role.

When talking about their perception of support from those responsible for overseeing their work, almost three-quarters said that local authority support was poor. Chairs of Governors were seen as being of a very mixed quality and MATs were usually good but, when bad, were “toxic” or “brutal”.
Our report does not focus on the experience of school leaders below headteacher level, but it is not unreasonable to anticipate that the challenges for this group reflect wider concerns.

Return of the Jedi

So, what is to be done with leadership development to usher in a new golden age? It’s time to bring out the Ewoks in the form of some recommendations our report makes for training providers.

First, we should be building upon what works best according to those who have progressed through the ranks to take on headship role. And, on the flipside of this, to learn what really hasn’t worked for them. It’s time for us to listen to them when they tell us the ways in which they feel under-prepared for their role and unsupported in executing it.

Second, we should be routinely capturing and evaluating medium- and longer-term feedback from leaders who have undertaken role-specific professional learning and its relevance for that role. Did this professional learning help once put to the test in the crucible of the real world for which it was intended? If not, we urgently need to learn and act upon these lessons.

Third, we should act upon that feedback to freshen up preparatory programmes on offer so that they better meet the demands of the role. Our survey participants tell us that, for them, this should involve aspirant leaders doing far more shadowing of the complex, practical challenges that they will face daily if appointed to their next dream job.

Fourth, leadership development provision should be increasingly contextually oriented and less generalised in nature. It should be more responsive to the emergent, rather than established, challenges that leaders face. Tailoring provision and enabling colleagues to choose from a pick’n’mix of options within programmes are just two ways in which this could be achieved.

Fifth, provision for those already in role (especially headteachers) needs to be stronger as the emphasis is currently on preparation and induction. Longevity in role is associated with improved outcomes but so is plateauing. Greater emphasis on case methods may help improve school leaders facing increasingly complex and unpredictable challenges in an uncertain world.

Sixth, in an era of declining retention rates in education and headship, and with school leaders increasingly reluctant to take on headship, we need to rethink the levels of support for the person behind the professional. Supervision, coaching and mentoring all strive to do this and are very well regarded by school leaders, and yet remain an offer rather than an entitlement.

Seventh, professional learning and support all-too-rarely pays attention to the equality, diversity and inclusion challenges faced by those from under-represented groups or those with protected characteristics. This limits the pool of leadership talent, experience and expertise in a way that is self-defeating for our education system. We simply must do better in this area.

A New Hope?*

Of course, there are those who might argue for a return to the old days. But it is difficult to see a return to the days when local authorities and the National College for School Leadership held sway in brokering or running leadership development programmes. The infrastructure just isn’t there anymore and the funding to restore lies in a galaxy far, far away.

If there is to be an era of new hope for school leadership development, though, it will involve a more central voice for practitioners to counterbalance the increasingly compliance-oriented approach that has dominated in recent years. School leaders are not backwards in coming forwards about what they want and need to do their job better. We must listen to them better.

*With apologies to Star Wars fans for playing fast and loose with the timeline.

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