Leading a school is challenging at the best of times. For schools judged ‘less than good’ by Ofsted, these challenges can feel insurmountable.
A poor Ofsted report affects schools in so many ways. Staff morale invariably dips and it’s difficult to avoid reputational damage - with the hit on admissions and the resulting funding challenges that often arise.
Leaders in struggling schools often find themselves overwhelmed and confused by the number of support mechanisms extended to them. Ofsted monitoring visits, external observations from academy trusts or local authorities, and extra professional development - it’s a lot to take in. What do you prioritise first? And how?
I’ve held several positions in school leadership, including three headships over a period of 15 years. I know what it’s like to have the buck stop at your feet. I have lain awake at three in the morning, staring at the ceiling and wondering what on Earth I’m doing. I’ve agonised over projected (and actual) SATs results. I’ve dealt with parent petitions, unpredictable staff members and loose-cannon governors.
I know that, whilst headship can be the best job in the world, it can also be one of the most stressful, frustrating and emotionally draining. It’s not possible to know it all, but the best way to learn is to speak to the people who have been there.
If the above sounds familiar, here’s my three-step guide on how you can jumpstart your school’s improvement journey.
Step one: ask for help
Schools facing challenges get bombarded with advice from every corner – advice that’s often contradictory, confusing and cognitively burdensome. It often feels more like scrutiny and does little to ease the pressures on leadership.
Be selective with the advice you take on board. Is it relevant to your school’s specific circumstances? And is it coming from someone who is impartial?
Networking is crucial, but try to connect with schools that are only slightly further along the improvement journey than you. There’s nothing worse than being sent to visit the outstanding school up the road, with a view to transplanting their successful processes onto your school’s setting. Processes are context-specific, so trying to directly replicate best practice elsewhere won’t always work.
Take ownership of your own school improvement journey and engage the services of an external coach if possible.
Step two: prioritise your needs
A phrase I use a lot with school leaders is “frontload the effort”. It’s vital to be proactive rather than reactive. You should take time to really understand your school and its situation so you can be sure you’re working on the right things. Use a root-cause analysis tool like the Five Whys to nail down the underlying issues. When you’ve identified where you are, think about where you would like to be and formulate a clear vision statement.
Use your vision statement as the focus for your future planning strategy and plan backwards from it. In order to achieve this vision, what needs to happen at every stage? Maintain your focus and avoid any initiatives that do not contribute directly to this vision – use a structure like Theory of Change or the Kellogg Foundation Logic Model to keep you on track.
Step three: remember, good leadership is a team effort
For headteachers, it’s often a very isolated and lonely existence. But, contrary to what we often hear in the media, leadership is not a one-person job.
From the outside, a headteacher is frequently seen as the sole reason for a school’s success. Whereas, in fact, the best schools have structures that are underpinned by strong leaders at all levels, where leadership is distributed and staff can act with autonomy. Where no one needs to be reminded of the feedback policy or nudged to hit a deadline.
To achieve this, a culture of individual responsibility and collective accountability needs to be developed. This is not easy and takes years rather than months, but it’s worth the effort in the long run as it releases a huge amount of leadership capacity.
This culture needs to start from a position of trust. And it must start with you - the headteacher. Place your trust in leaders and allow them to act autonomously. It may even be necessary to let them make certain low-stakes mistakes, so that they can develop professionally.
There is a lot of support available to help you start your leadership improvement journey - some of which can be at no extra cost to your school. For 20 years, Teach First has been providing lasting solutions to help schools tackle the toughest challenges.
Teach First’s fully-funded Leading Together programme is unique in that we work with the entire senior leadership team to accelerate your school’s improvement strategy. We do this by matching your school with the bespoke support of an experienced coach and former headteacher to build capacity and offer expertise to make a real, long-term impact.
The road to good leadership isn’t a quick fix. By taking the time to carve out capacity and seek impartial advice, you can access support to address your school’s needs and priorities. As headteachers, the buck may stop with you, but by engaging the whole leadership team and creating a culture of trust, your school can make long-term, sustainable improvements for the good of your pupils, staff and the entire school community.
Morgan Williams is a former headteacher and Achievement Partner at Teach First
Case study: Building school leadership from the ground up
Amanda Arnold was headteacher at an outstanding infant school when she was called in as an emergency replacement to improve leadership and learning at nearby Delves Junior School in Walsall.
“Staff had been through a very difficult time and there were pockets of poor practice. In my first year, there were a lot of staff changes. I think eight staff members left. Having the Ofsted ‘requires improvement’ judgement at the beginning of the journey gave us somewhere to start from. We made some new leadership appointments, and then the Leading Together programme came along at just the right time.
From day one at Delves, we had to really take control. The next stage on from there was to distribute that leadership – to get more people involved and enable them to make decisions.
Coaching from an experienced school leader has helped leaders be prepared to support their teams emotionally. Not only with their professional lives, but also to make sure they feel like they are valued and looked after.
The staff have really pulled together and the difference with our year group leaders is how they are able to steady the ship. There is no longer micromanagement of every single decision.
We know that our senior management team have really benefitted from the Leading Together training and now we need to make sure that their understanding and belief in our approach is shared effectively with all the other staff. In this way, we can make sure the gains we have made are secure and sustainable in the future.”