Schools

NPQs not up to scratch for increasingly ‘complex’ headship

Development programmes for heads and executive leaders lack the 'full extent of skills and knowledge' needed, report warns

Development programmes for heads and executive leaders lack the 'full extent of skills and knowledge' needed, report warns

National professional qualifications (NPQs) for school leaders lack the “full extent of skills and knowledge” needed for the “complexity of increasingly senior roles” a report has warned.

The development programmes for heads (NPQH) and executive leaders (NPQEL) also risk being seen by government as the “complete answer to what leaders need”, rather than the “minimum entitlement” they were designed to be.

Big Education and the Centre for Education and Youth spoke to academics, teacher trainers, policy experts and school leaders.

Becks Boomer-Clark
Becks Boomer Clark

They concluded that the government should review the programmes to “consider how to expand their scope and remit to more fully meet the needs of emerging and existing leaders”.

In a piece for Schools Week, chief executive of Academies Enterprise Trust Becks Boomer-Clark said NPQs are “necessary but they are not sufficient – it does not and should not end there.

“As well as further programmes to develop deeper and specialist knowledge, we also need a whole suite of support for leaders on how to implement change effectively in a complex environment.”

Pilot ‘NPQ+’ provision, government told

The NPQ report recommended ministers team up with the Education Endowment Foundation to pilot “beyond NPQ” or “NPQ+” provision that goes further than the existing programmes.

This would place more emphasis on supporting leaders to develop “in relation to their own wellbeing and leading cultures which support this in others, both staff and pupils”.

The current qualifications were launched in 2020 as part of a reformed suite of six NPQs aimed at improving development for mid- and late-career school staff.

The government subsequently announced £184 million to offer 150,000 free places by the end of this academic year. But take-up has been slow.

Data shows 65,225 funded participants in the past two academic years, meaning almost 85,000 participants would have to sign-up this year to meet the allocation.

In 2021–22, there were 3,902 funded participants in the NPQH and 1,056 in the NPQEL. Last year, there were 4,357 headteacher participants and 1,342 executive leaders.

‘Insufficient progression’

This week’s report warned of “insufficient progression” in the core content of the qualifications and “recognition of the changing scope and complexity of increasingly senior roles”.

Researchers added the DfE should review both NPQs to give a “clearer understanding of the role of the leader beyond the implementer of evidence informed interventions”.

They should also introduce “greater differentiation in content from other NPQs to better meet the needs of the most senior leaders”. Ministers should also commission a broader independent review of leadership development more generally.

James Bowen, of the NAHT, said the report shined a “helpful spotlight on where there are gaps in the current suite of national leadership programmes and qualifications”

Demands faced by school leaders “require more than just a set of technical skills, important though they are…it is therefore vital that leadership training and development addresses all aspects of the role”.

ASCL’s Sara Tanton said: “We agree with the need to create more opportunities for leaders to learn with, and from, leaders from other sectors, and much more needs to be done to break down barriers to leadership faced by teachers of colour and to support emerging and existing leaders from underrepresented groups.”

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3 Comments

  1. Patrick Obikwu

    The education landscape is still infused with deep prejudice that stifles and stagnates the career progression of teachers of colour. I fully agree with comments by ASCL’s Sara Tanton that …”much more needs to be done to break down barriers to leadership faced by teachers of colour and to support emerging and existing leaders from underrepresented groups.”
    I hold a BSc (Hons) degree in Biochemistry, Adv. Diploma (Sports Training and Fitness), UK Qualified Teacher Status (QTS) for secondary school science, PGCert in Development Education and Global Learning, and an MA in Education. With over 20 years of teaching experience, primarily in urban settings, I bring a blend of intellectual, emotional, social, and adaptability quotients (IQ, EQ, SQ, AQ). I was an enthusiastic and effective science teacher and pastoral middle leader that changed the lives of many students. With blocked opportunities I had to call it a day with teaching.
    The departure of experienced educators, particularly those who have dedicated decades to shaping young minds, represents a significant loss for society. The wealth of knowledge, dedication, and passion that individuals like me bring to the education ecosystem should not be squandered.
    Despite the challenges, my desire to contribute to education remains fervent. However, I am compelled to return only at the level of vice principal or deputy head, with a specific focus on fostering positive behaviour, character development, and academic achievement. This is not just a personal aspiration; it is a call for a more inclusive and equitable educational landscape that recognizes and values the contributions of educators from diverse backgrounds. The return of individuals with rich experiences and a commitment to positive change can only enhance the educational experience for all.

  2. Tired of seeing reality obscured into simplicity

    More worrying, potentially, is the courses narrow perspectives wrongly define complex thinking as (overly detailed) and exclude the very types of leaders we require to understand lead and manage through uncertainty and complexity. Speaking from personal experience of an NPQEL, I am fearful for what is being defined as effective leadership.
    Currently complaining regarding a recent near pass with the NPQEL because I approached the final assessment task in a different and more complexity aware way than the framework permits – as though the framework has defined all contextual implementations of effective leadership…in fact – here’s my complaint in a nutshell:

    I feel the course has failed in its due care and attention to assess effectively.

    I feel my evidence based approach was not recognised within the confines of the assessment approach.

    I feel the Course narrows perspective on what a truly effective Executive Leader should be because:
    1. It states the following as a leadership know how: Effective leaders have a positive impact on students, colleagues and the wider community through persuading, convincing and bringing others round to their perspective.
    As I stated in my reflection, I disagree with this as a know how skill: Disagree with the wording here – ‘not bringing round to ‘their perspective’ but together identifying the best way forwards- a shared rational perspective improved by everyone’s participation and contribution

    2. This links to my ‘failed’ Assessment Tasks where my justified and evidenced approach to building others in the moment of creation was seen as failing to impose enough detail and direction on others. Research, evidence and my experience as a headteacher for 11 years challenges this narrow view of top down leadership. If we want to build leaders, we have to let people lead. This is leadership as support rather than dictation or manipulation. Headteachers should not be manipulative but inspirational – driven by research logic and an absolute commitment to making things better for children.

    3. My complaints were not answered –
    – limited exposure to research and forbidden to use research outside of the ‘permitted’ documents – Not academic.
    – Limited reference to ‘Know that statements’ – I reduced these due to the guidance given by the leaders – so they understand enough?
    – Failure to consider an alternative leadership approach that prioritises engagement and shared leadership to find the best ways to drive change. Only a narrow authoritative model projected.

    This didn’t use to be innovative leadership, it just used to be leadership. When did performativity, conformity and control define effective leadership over innovation, research and freedom?

    Whilst the course promotes this narrow view of leadership, I remain proud not to succeed in this failure.

    • Patrick Obikwu

      I absolutely agree. The failure of NPQs is partly due the rigid, one-size-fits-all approach to leadership that overlooks the intricate and diverse circumstances inherent in school environments. Effective school leadership requires a keen awareness of the multifaceted challenges and contexts it must navigate. This is particularly crucial in a VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) setting, where the ability to anticipate and respond to constant change is paramount.
      In such environments, leadership must mirror the VUCA nature of its surroundings by embodying VUCA qualities:
      Vision: Leaders need a clear sense of direction and purpose to steer the school through uncertainty, inspiring confidence and alignment among stakeholders.
      Understanding: They must possess deep insights into the nuanced dynamics of their school community, recognizing the unique needs and perspectives of students, staff, parents, and other stakeholders.
      Clarity: Effective communication is essential for fostering transparency and trust amidst ambiguity, ensuring that everyone is on the same page despite the complexities at hand.
      Agility/Adaptability: Flexibility and responsiveness are key, enabling leaders to swiftly adjust strategies and approaches in response to evolving circumstances, thereby maintaining effectiveness in the face of volatility and complexity.
      In summary, leadership in schools must transcend rigid frameworks and embrace a dynamic, VUCA-responsive approach to effectively address the diverse challenges and contexts inherent in education today. Leadership must not and cannot afford to be dictatorial, exclusive, and prescriptive.