Leadership

School leaders are starting to shape the system – as they should

The collective response to the challenges facing schools is ushering in a new phase in system leadership, write Alice Gregson and David Horn

The collective response to the challenges facing schools is ushering in a new phase in system leadership, write Alice Gregson and David Horn

16 Sep 2023, 5:00

The complexity of the challenges facing schools and school leaders is apparent. Alongside ensuring children and young people – still so impacted by the legacy of the pandemic – are achieving the progress they need and deserve educationally, significant challenges remain such as poor levels of mental health, the growing complexity of special educational needs, low attendance, low aspirations in many communities and continued economic uncertainty. Much of this too often feels too big and too challenging for individual trusts or schools to tackle alone.

But what is also apparent is the determination and sense of collective endeavour among so many trust and school leaders to meet these challenges. Over the past year, born out of growing frustration as well as a sense of opportunity and moral purpose, we have heard from more trust leaders about the imperative for system leadership where a vacuum exists either nationally, regionally or locally.

Indeed, there are already many examples emerging across the system of trusts responding with creativity and ingenuity to these challenges, almost always in partnership with other stakeholders. In a series of publications, Forum Strategy – together with international partners The Brown Collective and several trust CEOs – have begun to capture and unpick what this all means for the system in 2023.

Of course, we are not starting from scratch when it comes to system leadership. Much progress has already been made in terms of the internalisation and sophistication of system leadership for school-to-school improvement within trusts, federations and elsewhere. Trust and school leaders and staff now work together regularly across multiple sites and at scale, driving school improvement.

However, our work shows that collaborative intent is expanding even further to identify and achieve better solutions to improve children and young people’s lives in the round. This includes trust leaders working together with others across the wider public and charity sectors and across communities with wider stakeholders to achieve meaningful impact and change.

Alongside these, the academy trust system itself remains embryonic, and it’s also become increasingly clear that trust leaders need to work together across trusts to inform one another’s development and improvement.

Everyone has a role to play in system-led improvement

Reflecting all these developments, our work has identified three key facets of system leadership at this level: trust-to-trust support and learning, area-wide or locality leadership, and influencing and informing system-level direction and policy.

We have also found that the behaviours of effective system leaders at this level are vital. This includes taking the initiative in identifying the big issues facing pupils and communities and galvanising others who can help to make a difference; emphasising the power and potential of partnerships to bring about change and building impactful relationships beyond organisational and sector boundaries; demonstrating humility, mutual respect, and fostering a culture of collegiality; ensuring momentum and delivery against shared goals; bringing your organisation with you and sustaining success within it; and taking calculated risks to drive progress. 

These are not only behaviours for CEOs, though; these are also to be encouraged and modelled by CEOs across the whole workforce. Everyone has a role to play in system-led improvement.

While the DfE sees this notion of wider system leadership as a key component of a trust’s work, sufficient detail is currently lacking in its trust quality descriptors as to what it means in practice. Addressing that gap using the work of our CEO members would itself be an example of effective system leadership.

Beyond that, we must ensure training is in place to support trust leaders to maximise their wider impact. Our ‘CEOs as system leaders’ programme aims to achieve just that. More also needs to be done to demonstrate the benefits of wider system leadership to boards of trustees who are key to providing direction and support.

Finally, we need to share and celebrate these emerging, impactful examples of system leadership. They have emerged from the sector itself rather than government policy, and the challenge now is to make them a system habit.

Forum Strategy’s sixth annual National #TrustLeaders CEO Conference takes place on 21st September in Nottingham. Schools Week is Media Partner to the event

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