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Making our education system world-class
Education, education, education – many of us will remember, with varying degrees of fondness, Tony Blair’s mantra for his priorities in government. How would we articulate the priorities today within education? Leadership, leadership, leadership would be one contender. Schools are taking on markedly more autonomy under the academies programme, multi-academy trusts (MATs) are springing up around the country, and all the talk is now of a ‘self-improving and school-led system’.
This throws the spotlight more sharply than ever before on to the quality of leadership in our schools. In a system where the responsibility is on individual schools or groups of schools to deliver high standards of education, without local or national government interference, then the leadership of those schools becomes central.
It was with this renewed focus on school leadership that the government last year commissioned a group of practitioners from across the sector to review the headteacher standards, which had first been written back in 2004. In the spirit of the self-improving system, the review panel was composed entirely of professionals in leadership roles of different types in schools, colleges, MATs, and nurseries. The brief was to produce a set of standards which built on the 2004 version but which reflected the changed priorities in 2014. The revised headteacher standards were published in January this year. The first point which exercised the group was who the standards were for. Unlike the teacher standards, they are not mandatory, and any employer is free to use, adapt or ignore them as they see fit. So, the prime users of a set of headteacher standards is the employer of the headteacher. It is intended that the standards help to shape roles and job descriptions, to design person specifications, and to inform target setting and performance management.
Getting a set of standards that would work for all types of employers and headteachers in all phases and contexts would require the standards to be very strategic – operational details would inevitably vary from one context to another so could not reasonably be built into the standards.
Employers are, however, not the only users of the headteacher standards. The 2004 version was widely used to inform and underpin leadership training and development work. The review group felt strongly that the new standards should serve a similar purpose. It is hoped that leaders at all levels, and aspirant leaders, will be able to use the headteacher standards to help them understand the requirements of leadership in our fast-developing school system, and to identify areas for their own further development as emerging leaders.
There is a wider audience as well for these standards, namely the general public. It was felt strongly by the panel that this was an opportunity to communicate to a wide audience the importance of the role of headteachers. That is the purpose of the preamble which begins: “Headteachers occupy an influential position in society and shape the teaching profession. They are lead professionals and significant role models within the communities they serve.” It is hoped that this can be used to raise further the profile and status of headteachers in their communities and nationally.
The new headteacher standards are intended to be part of a ‘suite’ of standards which most notably includes also the standards for teachers. However, there is an important difference between the two sets of standards. The teacher standards are written to be a universally usable set of fundamental requirements for effective teaching. While they are interpreted differently according to the context or experience of the teacher concerned, they do prescribe a set of expectations which all teachers must meet at a level appropriate to their phase of development.
The review group for the headteacher standards, by contrast, wanted a different approach to the standards they were writing. It was felt very strongly that, given the absolutely pivotal role of leadership in schools, and particularly in the school-led and self-improving school system, we needed a standard of leadership excellence, not a minimum acceptable level of performance.
This is because it was recognised that there is already exceptional leadership in our education system, and we wanted the standards to be a vehicle for capturing that excellence and disseminating and universalising it across the system.
Given this difference of approach between the teacher and headteacher standards, we needed to spell out clearly some possible inappropriate uses for the headteacher standards.
While teachers are expected at all times to meet all aspects of the teacher standards, it would be inappropriate for employers or performance managers to insist that headteachers fully meet every point of the headteacher standards to be considered effective.
That is why the headteacher standards specify that they should not be reduced to a checklist of individual ‘competencies’, but rather should be taken as a whole and used to inform and underpin an approach to continuous leadership development.
Performance managers should not set targets against all the points of the standards, but rather take a view of the development of their own school leaders in the context of continuous improvement and identify priority areas for the next stage, informed by the standards as a whole.
The feedback has been positive, and, encouragingly, most positive of all from those most engaged in wider system leadership. One CEO of a large, growing and successful MAT commented that the standards were the most authentic and resonant description of leadership work he had seen. That is not to say there is not training and familiarisation work still to be done. In particular, governing boards need to be made more fully aware of the standards, especially for recruitment and performance management, and those headteachers who are anxious about what the aspirational character of the standards will mean need to be reassured and helped to understand the purpose and context.
Finally, having referred to professional leadership development in the light of the headteacher standards, it may be worth reflecting on what professional development looks like in the emerging school-led and self-improving system.
The most important thing to say here is that the system collectively needs to take fuller ownership of its own professional development needs, and move away from a mindset which assumes that an external agency will take the lead. Increasingly, it will be called on to envision its own standards of excellence. While there is a role for national agencies to support school-based professional development, this is unlikely to be government directly in the future, including in the form of the National College for Teaching and Leadership.
The aspiration is for professionals themselves to shape professional and leadership development, perhaps through the growing movement for a profession-led College of Teaching. A profession which limits its ambitions to compliance with government requirements can never be a great profession.
The teaching, and school leadership professions increasingly will be called on to take ownership of what is needed to achieve excellence. There are challenges here for government too, which will need to resist the temptation to micromanage. As Joel Klein remarked: “You cannot mandate greatness, you have to unleash it.”