What do the best education system leaders do?

When I describe system leadership, what I mean is the way that groups of talented leaders work together to form plans and take decisions that have an impact on the outcomes and experiences of children in a whole community, and not just the school they attend.

Why is this important? 

When we are planning something so important as the improvement of a school, ensuring the collective thoughts and experiences of all of the leaders in a group are utilised to create powerful impact makes sense. As our educational landscape transforms we need to ensure that as we develop the ways we organise education, we simultaneously raise standards to a level we have never seen before. There are three core principles that underpin how I believe we will achieve this.

1. Every school must give and receive support. Schools do not remain static for long. They are usually improving or declining and for that reason even the best schools in our education system will have pockets of practice that needs to improve. At the other end of the journey, a school that is in crisis will have some great practice, but maybe not enough of it. As a school moves through the improvement cycle, recognising the need to offer and accept support will become an important dimension of leadership thinking.

2.  The growth in formal collaboration through the multi academy trust (MAT) structure will mean we need more leaders able to lead across a group of schools. The role of executive headteacher or chief executive is new in our evolving system, and with more than 900 operating MATS we know more great leaders are taking this step.

3.  System leaders work in different ways. A MAT chief executive is an obvious example but there are others. Middle Leaders and outstanding teachers who support the development and improvement of colleagues across their MAT are system leaders. Colleagues who work as teaching assistants, IT network technicians, school sports coordinators and estate managers lead staff in their area of expertise. These new ways of working are opening up not only new career opportunities, but better educational and learning experiences for children.

So what do the best system leaders do?

The role is not the same as leading one single school. I, like many others, have come through this route, and we have learned that the leadership skills and capabilities needed are different. The scale and scope of the system leader role means that change takes longer and needs a deeper understanding of the different contexts and stages of the improvement journey.

We need more great leaders to undertake this work

The focus of trust-wide improvement requires a level of engagement and communication that goes beyond what is possible in a single school. Holding people to account for their part of the plan, when you might not come into contact with them every day, is just one of the challenges. There is also a high degree of skill needed to identify effective practice and transmit it to the classroom setting in a different school.

Whatever the context we need more great leaders to undertake this work. It is at the heart of the secretary of state’s vision for education in this country when she and I talk about moving beyond a debate about structure to an ambition to use the structure to raise standards.

David Carter is National Schools Commissioner

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