With policymakers sharpening their pencils to refine and finesse manifestos, they would do well to focus on one of the biggest levers we have to transform education: school leaders.
Any new government should position itself as The Great Enabler, not The Great Enforcer. Whoever is presiding over the seventh floor of Sanctuary Buildings in the days after the general election should have the confidence to allow practice to shape policy.
Education leaders are some of the most creative problem-solvers: trust us and innovation will follow.
Whether that’s Dixons with their drive on flexible working, United Learning’s move to access reserves to fund higher salaries, Ark’s extensive curriculum programmes or the recent work we’ve done with Ambition Institute on Individual Development Accounts, allocating £100,000 to every leader for their own development and an aspiration of 100 hours of quality CPD every year.
Prioritise professional development
A new team in Sanctuary Buildings must help us reclaim teaching and school leadership as one of the great professions. This means committing to a long-term and serious entitlement for development and training, putting education on an equal footing with other professions, such as law or medicine.
In a crisis, communities look to headteachers for leadership. But we need to stop relying simply on our leaders’ goodwill and strength of character; we must invest seriously in mentoring, coaching and supervision.
It is madness that the requirements for professional development for accountants are clearer than those for headteachers. We should be precise about the number of hours teachers and leaders must commit to their PD and find ways to incentivise it; our leaders need to be given permission to prioritise themselves.
A new secretary of state should also end the uncertainty that hangs over whether NPQs will continue to be funded or not. They are having a positive impact across the system, creating a shared knowledge base and language in schools that has accelerated both collaboration and school improvement, but we need more time and funding for them to reach more schools.
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.
Our sector has so much exposure to the evidence base of what works. But our understanding of effective implementation, particularly at scale, lags behind. Until we crack that, system-wide improvement will evade us. It is not enough to understand the theories of change, we need to invest in leaders’ ability to implement them really well.
Give us time to think
Finally, we continually rehearse the recruitment and retention crisis but rarely do we land on any serious strategic solutions that will properly shift the dial.
The truth is that we are not competing for talent between schools; we are competing with other sectors and the wider world. School leadership needs to feel “doable” in the context of people’s wider lives and the increasingly stark generational shift in how people relate to their work.
We must rethink our relationship with time. While we almost certainly have a crisis of absenteeism across our pupil population, arguably we also have a crisis of presenteeism across our workforce. The intersection of time and technology will play a pivotal role, using one to release the other.
A new government should commit to reducing contact time for teachers and leaders to build in time for planning (actual thinking!), professional development and collaboration. Because otherwise, it only happens in the margins of busy working lives.
If policymakers want to look for inspiration, there are many international examples, look to Western Australia where they fund a professional sabbatical in your fifth year of work. What better signal to the profession that it matters and is valued?
Elections swing one way or the other on the pivotal question of change vs more of the same. For all our sakes, whoever wins, let us commit to building a story of hope for education and invest thoughtfully in the people who will make it happen.