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Speech by Sue Williamson on Confident and Courageous Leadership, Leading Edge Conference, October 2015

I was fortunate to work with David Hargreaves on personalising learning and system redesign. He was very scornful when anyone used descriptors for leadership. His belief is that leadership is leadership, and he would say that, of course, leaders will be courageous.

It was always a challenge to argue with David, but I came to agree that we should not over complicate matters. I believe that you can be confident and courageous when you have clearly defined principles that underpin all your work and are key to decision making.

Your principles are developed and refined as your teaching career unfolds. My key principle was that every child can succeed – this influenced how I taught, how I developed the curriculum and when I became a headteacher the culture of the school.

You need time to build and test your principles and to understand how you might lead a school.

I can’t be precise about how long is required but I know that I learnt a lot from having different leadership roles in different schools. I still remember the day I was appointed Headteacher and my thoughts on the journey home – “What do I do now?”

What I did know was that schools are about young people. In her article for the Sec Ed supplement on SSAT’s National Conference – Quality and Equity – Ani Magill writes: “I worry that heads have swapped the word ‘children’ for the word ‘Ofsted’. They say things like ‘we need to do these things for Ofsted’ – but the trouble is that when people get obsessed with Ofsted they lose sight of the real point of education.

At St. John the Baptist School, their principles are very clear – they want the children to be happy and successful, plus 3 aims:

  • That the students get better results than they would at any other school;
  • They gain the skills and attributes needed to live and work in tomorrow’s global society (including lots of opportunities for leadership, clubs, sports, activities and trips);
  • They are given the values and morals to make a contribution to society.

When I visited St. John, I saw happy children, who were enjoying their learning. Year 8s were going off on a geography field trip; there was a buzz in each of the classrooms as students worked on the challenges set by their teachers.

There was mutual respect between staff and students. I loved my visit and I could not stop talking about what I had seen. To me St. John represents all that I would want from a school.

Yet Ani is often described as a ‘maverick’ headteacher. To me she is the perfect example of a confident, principled school leader who does not try to over complicate what makes a good school – a relentless focus on teaching and learning.

As she says the teachers at St. John “know they have to prepare good lessons and teach well. The lessons are fun and staff morale is high.” They have to teach well throughout the academic year and not just when Ofsted calls or it is lesson observation time.

In recent times, the role or the fate of a headteacher has been compared with that of a football manager. I have just read Sir Alex Ferguson with Michael Moritz book called Leading.

In it he writes: “My job was to make everyone understand that the impossible was possible. That’s the difference between leadership and management.”

This was exactly what I saw when I visited Ani’s school and many other schools that I visit. Sir Alex says that teaching bears some similarities to football management – no it’s not about being top of the league tables, but “to inspire a group of people to perform at their very best… The best teachers are the unsung heroes and heroines of any society… Young people will always manage to achieve the impossible – whether this is on the football field or inside a company or other big organisation.”

At SSAT we know that teachers make lives.

Research also confirms this view on leadership. The National College has produced an interesting pamphlet on 10 strong claims about successful school leadership. It confirms that headteachers’ values are key components in their success:

“…the most successful school leaders are open-minded and ready to learn from others. They are flexible rather than dogmatic within a system of core values. They are persistent in their high expectations of others, and they are emotionally resilient and optimistic.

Such traits help explain why successful leaders facing daunting conditions are often able to push forward against the odds.”

I think this is a good description of the Leading Edge programme. There is a great willingness to share and learn from each other.

Sir Alex highlights how he was helped as a young manager by Bobby Robson, who invited him to an Ipswich training session to share some training routines. I wonder how Bobby felt when the following year Ferguson’s Aberdeen side beat his team in the first round of the UEFA cup.

I have just read the Leading Change Special Edition – Innovation Grants 2014 – 15; it is rich in case studies of schools innovating – doing things differently to do them better. The Leading Edge steering group decided that there needed to be more emphasis on innovation and introduced innovation grants.

This is one example of the strength of the network – it leads, it encourages and it inspires. Within the network, we have hundreds of successful headteachers – there is no single model for achieving success. Collaboration and networking are essential for keeping our ideas fresh and giving headteachers the space to think.

Yesterday I visited the University of Cambridge and met Professor Sir Tom Blundell – he gave me a tour of the laboratories and explained how medicine and drug production are developing at a rapid rate because of international collaboration.

Headteachers need to collaborate regionally, nationally and internationally, the last five years has seen radical change and it is invaluable to discuss developments with fellow headteachers. We must make time to do this its key to success not a luxury.

Whether we agreed with him or not, Michael Gove changed the education landscape in a most dramatic way. This has presented challenges and opportunities to headteachers.

The emergence of multi-academy trusts and chains has led to the introduction of Chief Executives and Executive Heads. This requires additional leadership skills and even greater resilience to deal with the pressures. There is also a greater need for good governance.

I encourage all SSAT staff to be school governors – its great experience for them. When I thought I was retiring in August, I agreed to be a trustee of – Comberton MAT – as you know Stephen Munday’s MAT.

If Ani is the Alex Ferguson of the education world, Stephen is Arsene Wenger. He is certainly a smooth talker – and convinced me to join the governing body of one of the schools.

After one meeting I was the chair of governors. There is plenty of guidance on being a chair of governors, but not enough recognition of the time commitment.

Good schools need good governing bodies. However, there is no blueprint for running a successful MAT there are examples of very tightly controlled MATs being very successful and also the more loosely controlled ones being equally successful.

The common feature is the principles on which they operate. Comberton is very much based on the village college principles introduced over 100 years ago. The colleges are at the heart of their communities with no fences keeping people out.

I think it takes tremendous courage to put your reputation on the line and take on more than one school. Football managers only run one club at a time. But what Ani and Stephen share with Sir Alex and Arsene is that they are in it for the long term. They are all builders of successful schools or clubs.

To quote Sir Alex, if you want to build a winning organisation, you have to be prepared to carry on building every day. This is what confident and courageous leaders do.

Ani and Stephen are also totally committed to sharing and supporting. They have a very strong work ethic, they give a lot of time to developing and supporting the Leading Edge programme. We are very grateful for their hard work and commitment.

I think the importance of good governance is a theme that we should return to – my day job is education, and I struggle to keep up with the demands of being a governor and trustee – not the demand on time, but the demands on my knowledge.

The Leading Edge network has a wonderful mixture of schools and headteachers. I love visiting the schools – each year I wait for Alex to give me my list of schools to visit. I have always come away from a school inspired – inspired by the work of the teachers; inspired by talking to the students, and marvelling at the passion, commitment of the headteacher.

In our sizzle reel we state SSAT believes that teachers are heroes – teachers make lives.

You are the system leaders – my challenge to you all is to work with us to produce the next generation of school leaders. There is not a great pool of potential leaders out there.

We know there is a teacher recruitment problem, but when a vacancy for a headteacher in a large academy only attracts three candidates or less – we have a problem.

Succession planning within schools and MATs is important but even more so for the system. Sir Alex is very interesting on succession planning – I think we all know it did not go to plan. How will Arsenal replace Arsene Wenger? More importantly are their successors in waiting for you all?

I believe this network has an important role to play in developing and producing the next generation of system leaders. I worry that if MATs/chains promote from within and the new leaders have not experienced a variety of leadership styles and approaches that this will not move schools forward.

Let’s work on developing the leadership pool together. Lets make the impossible possible for students, teachers and everyone who work in schools.

That is leadership – being confident and courageous is part of the day job.

I recommend Sir Alex’s book on Leading – it makes the bold claim it will make you a better leader. I have no vested interest in promoting the book – I enjoyed watching Arsenal beat Manchester Utd 3-0 on Sunday. I like the simplicity and clarity that Sir Alex brings to the key skills of leadership.

We can learn from other fields – I know the Leading Edge steering group enjoyed their visit to Apple and the input from one of the Apple Vice Presidents on leadership.

To summarise I believe that all successful leaders are confident and courageous because they have strong principles and are committed to making a difference for all young people regardless of ability.

Schools are about young people not Ofsted.


Read more: Leading Edge programme


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