Joined-up thinking

03 July 2015

Leader NLFPeter Kent unveils plans for a new foundation, backed by teachers and governors, to nurture leadership development and says if the government is serious about letting the profession lead the system, it should fund the idea.

On 1 January 1999, I became the head of Lawrence Sheriff School in Rugby and had the chance to attend the national conference for new headteachers.

With the enthusiasm that comes from being new, I had planned to arrive early and make a careful set of notes on what the government expected of me in my headship role.

Unfortunately, this was before the days of Google Maps. As soon as I left the Tube, I took the wrong turn and found myself arriving half an hour late to hear the ‘VIP guest’ who opened the conference. The VIP turned out to be Tony Blair, still riding a remarkable wave of popularity after his first General Election victory in 1997.

In hindsight, being late was no bad thing since it meant that I missed the usual politicians’ platitudes and just heard the bits that really mattered in Blair’s speech, which centred on his plan to open a new National College for School Leadership (NCSL) in Nottingham.

I don’t claim to remember any more about what he said but I can still recall the palpable sense of excitement that leadership was at least being recognised as something that mattered. This college was going to be our version of Sandhurst, designed to train, develop and nurture our generation of leaders and those who came after us. It also chimed with what was happening in other parts of the public sector where leadership training, previously undervalued perhaps, was now seen as critical to driving improvement and reform.

Another age
In one sense, what happened at that conference belongs to another age. The National College came, burned brightly for a period and has now gone. The National College for Teaching and Leadership (NCTL) may inhabit the same building but it would be the first to say that it is carrying out a totally different set of functions in a totally different way.

However, in another sense what was true in 1999 is even more true today: the need to focus upon leadership is, if anything, more crucial than it was 16 years ago.

Government policy in areas such as dealing with ‘coasting’ schools, closing the gap or dealing with areas of disadvantage all depend upon finding and developing high-quality leaders. Those leaders cannot just be left to get on with it; they require support, nurturing and continuing professional development. Their careers are likely to involve moving from the leadership of a single institution (demanding enough in itself) to perhaps becoming chief executive of a multi-academy trust and working across different schools and phases.

Talent-spotting
Furthermore, the need to talent-spot and recruit the next generation of high-quality leaders has never been greater. The idea that they will just appear or that market forces will somehow produce a steady pipeline of top-quality leaders is, to put it mildly, fanciful. All of which takes us to the self-improving system.

Following the demise of NCSL, I was sorely tempted to sit on the sidelines and yell, “I told you so!” as loudly as possible as I watched leadership development and all of those initiatives created to support new heads and nurture fresh talent fall into decline.

But while that would have been cathartic, it would have done nothing to help me the next time that I needed to appoint a middle leader or an assistant head. Our current system is crying out for a profession-led solution that develops the quality of leadership in our system. The good news is that exactly this kind of organisation could soon be on its way.

For some months, ASCL has been in conversation with NAHT and the National Governors’ Association (NGA) about the creation of a Foundation for Leadership in Education. We do not want simply to reinvent NCSL but, instead, create an organisation that responds to the challenges of 2015 and beyond. Hence, the foundation would:

  • model the principles of the self-improving system through profession-led provision of high-quality leadership for our nation’s schools

  • develop and promote leadership standards

  • accredit and quality assure leadership development programmes and qualifications and their delivery

  • research and disseminate evidence on professional knowledge and leadership effectiveness

  • promote leadership succession planning

  • host constructive dialogue between education leaders and policy makers, creating a stronger sense of collective endeavour and shared vision

Already the strength of this vision has meant that the Teaching Schools Council (TSC), licensees who deliver existing professional qualifications and employers’ groups have joined us to take forward these aims. While the foundation has a series of practical roles to discharge, its core function is ‘profession-led provision of high-quality leadership for our nation’s schools’. If we can take a step towards doing this then we will really be seeing the self-improving system beginning to transform English education.

I have talked already about the need to create a pipeline of high-quality leaders. The foundation will do this by offering to oversee the delivery of national professional qualifications at middle leader, senior and headship level. It would also take on other leadership development roles, such as overseeing training for business managers and emerging system leaders. All of this would require some pump-priming funding from government, but this would be a perfect opportunity for them to deliver on the willingness that was expressed during our conference to step back and allow us to lead the system ourselves.

Share research
Sharing the evidence of good practice in leadership and ‘what works’ from research would be another strand of the foundation’s mission, aiming to form a bridge between the research community and the profession. Leadership associations are best placed to do this, we believe, because we can bring together theories and ideas about leadership with the experience of members who are very aware of the practical, day-to-day challenges of running a school or college.

Finally, the foundation would ‘host constructive dialogue between education leaders and policy makers’. It would not seek to take on the roles of professional associations but to influence the leadership policy that emerges from central government. It would provide the opportunity for all leaders to speak with one voice on a set of core issues.

The foundation is not an attempt to undermine the Royal College of Teaching, which received such a strong endorsement from ASCL General Secretary Brian Lightman and me during ASCL’s Annual Conference. However, the college will take time to develop and is likely to focus in its early stages on classroom-based issues related to teaching and learning. The foundation can emerge almost immediately from within the leadership associations and then work supportively alongside the Royal College to nurture its development.

For the first time in my career, all of the leadership associations have come together not to identify a problem but instead to offer a solution. The foundation will offer a model of leadership developed by the profession for the profession.

Our next step is to talk to government and persuade them to work with us on its development. Like all good ideas, once it is established I suspect that we will be asking ourselves, “Why didn’t we do this before?”

The birth of the foundation is yet another indication of increasing momentum towards the implementation of the ideas behind our blueprint and the creation of the self-improving system.