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Headteachers and System Leadership

For a number of years now educational systems around the world have been identifying how headteachers and school leaders can contribute to the development of 'a self-improving school system' as described by by David Hargreaves in a paper for the English National College for Educational Leadership in 2010.  Like schools, systems need to be adaptive and self-sustaining and to achieve this it is crucial that the experience and expertise of headteachers is tapped into  in order to support colleagues, other schools and, most importantly in my eyes, challenge the status quo. System leadership is about collaborating and identifying a variety of roles and ways that headteachers can contribute to this on-going process of self-evaluation, self-repair and self-development.  

A variety of models have been put forward as to how headteachers might fulfil this system leadership role and I want to consider some of these in this post. The English College fo Educational Leadership  identified four roles that system leaders can fulfil. The first is as professional partners. This can be seen as the first step on a journey of engagement at system level, and in his commentary on this Robert Hill noted that this level of engagement is one that most headteachers are comfortable with. In this they collaborate with and support, through coaching or mentoring, new headteachers on appointment and during their first two years in post. The next role identified is that of local leaders of education (LLEs). The main function here is to support colleague headteachers at a local level, with a focus on improvement priorities. The next role is that of national support schools (NLEs). At this level headteachers engage within the system by supporting schools and headteachers facing challenging circumstances, say following an unsatisfactory Ofsted inspection. The next, and final level, was school improvement partnerships (SIPs). These have now been phased out, but were aimed at providing school-to-school support through collaboration and partnership working. As well as possible structures, and levels of engagement, the English model gave some attention to the characteristics and dispositions needed by school leaders to be effective contributors at system level.

They should understand complexity and would see this as a positive aspect in their role. Within such complexity, of change, school development and learning, they would see opportunities for effective leadership practices and development. They are able to adapt and change their position according to differing contexts and would work hard to make and develop connections, in order to create momentum.

They would be comfortable in the role of leading learning and would be committed to a deep understanding of children's learning. They would be enquirers and would use enquiry in their own leadership development and as a strategy in their models for capacity building. They should be risk-takers, but not recklessly so, and innovators. They would clearly model a moral purpose to their practice and actions, with their values and principles underpinning all their actions.

They are committed to building leadership capacity in others, are reflective and self-aware. They are emotionally intelligent and conscious of how their leadership practice impacts on others. They should create opportunities for collaboration and be committed to growing and nurturing future leaders. They 'talent spot' future leaders and support them to develop.

They display a growing independence and contribute at local, regional and national levels. They are advocates within the system and provide role-models within their institutions and further afield. They build leadership capacity within colleagues and should be committed to building connections with other powerful individuals and networks.

Hill also notes in this paper that 'system leadership puts a premium on being able to inspire, persuade and negotiate with other school leaders, and to challenge the status-quo.'

Over the last twelve months I have had the opportunity to work with Clive Dimmock, who is a professor at the Robert Owen Centre which sits within Glasgow University. Clive has researched and written on aspects of high performing school leadership all over the world. He too has given some thought to system leadership and has some interesting findings and thoughts worth considering.

In a presentation to headteachers before Christmas, he started by identifying what system leaders were. He felt that system leaders care about and work for the success of other schools, as well as their own. For them, it was not appropriate to focus solely on their own school or role, but they were committed and understood their role and influence in the wider system.

They have a shared sense of mission and responsibility to improve the larger system, and, importantly, they realise that to do so they have to engage in a meaningful way. They do not pay lip-service to this role but are authentic and recognise their responsibility.

They measure their own success, and that of the system by improved student learning and achievement. They aim to both raise the bar and to narrow attainment and opportunity gaps through the establishment of professional learning communities.

They recognise a spectrum of roles that exist in order to be effective system leaders and that these range in both the sphere and the extent of how they influence within the system.

Clive spoke of why we needed system leadership in order to raise standards, close gaps in order to develop equity and social justice within the system for all learners. Two key issues that we needed to address when considering this were scaling up, how we go from school, to schools, to local, to regional and beyond in our practice and models, and sustainability. We need practices, policies, procedures and structures that are sustainable, whatever the personnel involved. He then went on to suggest the levels, or roles, he saw within system leadership, and a lot of these were similar to the English model.

He started with the professional partner or headteacher mentor role, where experienced individual headteachers worked with less experienced colleagues to support them, especially in the initial years of their headships. Next we have the local leader of education, where experienced and high performing school leaders worked with colleagues in a group or cluster of local schools. The school improvement partner, where headteachers worked with colleagues to support common themes for school development and change. Then the executive head, who may lead one or more schools, a model currently in operation in England. There then would be a consultant head, who would be available to other schools and within an area to help and support them and their leaders on a needs basis. He went on to then identify a national leader of education, who would work at a national level to support the system and schools. Finally Clive identified a specialist leader of education role. These leaders would have particular specialisms that they could offer system support with. These might not even be headteachers but could be DHTs or PTs with high levels of specialism and expertise.

As you can see, Clive's model is perhaps more nuanced than the first one but there are key similarities and aims within the models. He too considered the dispositions required of high performing school leaders to undertake these roles within the system, and to promote self regulation and adaption. I have covered these in a previous post 'Eight Characteristics of High Performing Leaders' 23/03/14 and I would refer you to this for more detail. What is not in doubt is that high performing school leaders and systems around the world, Finland, Canada, Australia, are looking more and more at how they can utilise the expertise and experience that already sits within the system to contribute to the overall development of those systems. This is how I work as a headteacher within my own school, with the aim of developing those into self-improving and self-adapting entities, which are grounded in the practices of all. Scaling this up to system level, whilst challenging, is an appropriate direction of travel, in my view. Just as it is no longer acceptable for teachers to work individually and with closed classroom doors, it is also beholden on experienced headteachers to look outside of their own immediate schools and collaborate with others to help the system grow and improve.

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