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Teacher leadership – system leadership isn’t just for headteachers

dan-and-andyDan Belcher (l) and Andy Williams (r), SSAT senior education leads, write…

SYSTEM leadership is still very much a buzz phrase in English education. It crops up in the government focus on the self-improving school system, the growth and influence of multi-academy trusts (MATs), teaching schools and more broadly the importance of networking and collaboration.

Underpinning this buzz phrase is a strong moral purpose. At its root, system leadership argues for moral concern beyond your own school, looking out for the interests of students in the schools around you and not introducing policies and practices that could do harm (such as altering your catchment to the detriment of others).

Holding to such moral values is not always easy in an era of heavy accountability, where schools are compared in league tables and pitted in competition with each other.

System leadership is ‘when individual schools heads become almost as concerned about the success of other schools as they are about their own school’
Michael Fullan

However, these tensions haven’t deterred headteachers from embracing the challenge. Department for Education statistics from July 2015 revealed there were 846 multi-academy trusts in England, more than double the number in 2011.

It has created a whole new set of professional roles and identities, including executive heads and principals, and CEOs – borrowings for an increasingly business orientated education system.

While the title system leader is usually bestowed on the headteacher or senior leader working to support other schools, there are many teachers making huge contributions to system leadership. These teachers expand their influence and professionalism to reach beyond their own school.

Indeed, for schools to truly lead system-wide change, the collective leadership potential of all teachers must be recognised and developed (Hargreaves, 2011; Hopkins, 2006).

What are the characteristics of teacher leaders?

Teacher leaders are practitioner champions (Hargreaves, 2003) committed to professional learning – their own and others. They participate in teacher communities, and are actively involved in co-operative forms of professional development. They also lead and share innovations that influence improvements for student learning, achievement and welfare (Boylan, 2016).

These teacher leaders are recognised in a number of of different ways; as specialist leaders in education (SLEs), advanced skills teachers (ASTs) and lead practitioners (LPs).

Let us consider the SSAT Lead Practitioner Programme, which includes an assessment framework, online reflective tool and support that enables teacher leaders to validate their practice against nationally agreed standards.

First, we recognise that not all teachers aspire to be school leaders – middle and senior leadership is not for them. As one aspiring lead practitioner commented: ‘I’m not interested in being a school leader, I always wanted to be a teacher and still want to after 14 years. I just want to be the best teacher I can be, and that’s what LP helps me to do.’

However, the lead practitioner framework helps to develop, and then recognises and celebrates, the school leaders at all levels: there are many examples of LPs going on to become headteachers. Importantly, it identifies how leaders of learning extend their sphere of influence, through the 10 standards of the LP framework (see figure below).


We see that the personal skills and attributes, alongside the professional knowledge of the individual combine to impact on others, ultimately make a difference in the classroom, where it counts.

Aspiring lead practitioners are guided by the standards to develop leadership in others; to seek clarity of their teaching and learning vision; and to lead change, informed by research and evidence.

As Marcella McCarthy, senior lead practitioner and principal, St Gregory the Great Catholic School, puts it: ‘Schools are potentially a fantastic research laboratory. Every day you have hundreds of students trying out different ways of doing things.

The LP programme encourages people to evaluate their research, to think about it, to organise it, to work together, to work with people from other schools – it’s about becoming slightly more professional. And that’s exciting.’

The Lead Practitioner standards help us to define some of the detail behind our long-standing teaching and learning beliefs: teaching and learning is complex; Teachers are highly skilled professionals and learners; all teachers and students have talent and potential to grow; Great teachers know their students, care about them and have time for them; Students should be on a journey towards co-constructing their own learning; and all learning should be an active process with challenge.

Teachers’ potential to grow and develop as teacher leaders can be aided by the signposting of the lead practitioner programme.

In this interesting article Lolly Daskal argues that you can’t develop as a leader until you know yourself. She goes on to identify the nine skills you need to develop to become a leader with impact:

  • Cultivate your self-awareness.
  • Develop the right mindset.
  • Capitalize on your confidence.
  • Continue to learn.
  • Teach to grow.
  • You are the results of your experiences.
  • Success is a series of small wins.
  • Action speaks louder than words.
  • Find the balance.

Putting her thesis another way: You must know who you are as a leader before you can lead others. Although this was written from a business leader perspective, we can see striking similarities with leadership of learning.

Let’s leave the last word to Lolly:

‘It all starts with you–with knowing yourself, learning daily, and sharing that knowledge with others. Then when the difficult days come, and they will, you will be prepared.’


Boylan, M. (2016) Deepening system leadership: Teachers leading from below, Educational Management Administration & Leadership, Vol. 44(1) 57–72

Fullan M (2004) Systems Thinkers in Action: Moving Beyond the Standards Plateau. London: DfES Innovation Unit/NCSL.

Hargreaves D (2003) Education Epidemic: Transforming Secondary Schools Through Innovation Networks. London: Demos.

Hargreaves D (2011) Leading a Self-Improving School System. Nottingham. NCSL

Hopkins D (2006) A short primer on system leadership. Paper presented at OECD conference: International Perspectives on School Leadership for Systemic Improvement, 6 July.

Find out more about the SSAT Lead Practitioner Accreditation.

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