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System Leadership and a tale of four small schools (1)

This Friday I had the pleasure of attending a first development and collaboration event with the staff from four small primary schools. Although they are all in the same learning community, along with a mix of larger primary schools and two secondary schools they feed into, the headteachers were wanting to address the issue of development capacity in small-school settings. Whether you have thirty classes or three, or less, there is still the same demands and expectations in terms of development and moving forward. The difference is that larger schools are more able to spread the load wider, whilst in the small school this load falls on fewer and fewer people. So the two headteachers, because they lead two schools each, we're looking to increase capacity for growth by bringing the staff from all four schools together under a common agenda of development. What is key is that this collaboration and mutual cooperation is being driven by the staff in the schools themselves, and not by the local authority or others. I believe that teachers develop best when they identify the steps they need to take to get better and improve and, if this is the case, then so it is for whole school communities and staff coming together for the same purpose.

I have previously been headteacher of a small school in my career and I understand the challenges placed upon the small-school head and their staff. As stated above, the demands are the same, in terms of curricular and pedagogical development, as for the larger schools, but there are fewer people to carry this load. It is easy to argue that such demands are even more challenging for the small school than for larger ones, because the larger ones have more staff and crucially more management to help support this. I remember as a teaching-headteacher in a small school trying to juggle the demands of leadership and teaching and being frustrated by the fact that I was unable to do either as well as I would like. A definite case of 'falling between two stools.' When we were concerned with school and professional development we had a small team of three or four to tackle all agendas and used to envy colleagues in larger establishments who could achieve so much more in a school year, and were able to collaborate and stimulate professional dialogue within a larger pool of colleagues. Fortunately things have moved on a little and my own authority now has no teaching headteachers and instead we have more heads who are leading two schools, as are the two colleagues I was working with on Friday. Partnership schools can provide another vehicle to bring staff together and increase the numbers for collaboration and developmental purposes, but sometimes this is still difficult because small schools are by their very nature usually found in more remote and rural areas. I am headteacher of two schools myself now, but I wouldn't say we fit the usual 'model', in that one is a fairly large town school and the other is a small two teacher village school that is only four miles away. However, staff in both schools have benefitted by the increased opportunities to collaborate, share experiences and appreciate different perspectives.

A lot of partner schools though are quite a distance apart and there may only two or three teachers in each, so they still face some unique challenges as they seek to develop their practice and improve outcomes. Over the last few years I have met many headteachers of such schools who are frustrated by the limitations or challenges posed by their size and location, but all of whom are determined that the schools they lead and the children in them should not be disadvantaged by their geography or size. Headteachers and staff in such schools work hard to mitigate the challenges they face and to keep delivering. If you are in a remote and rural area the growth of technology and social media has been a tremendous boon. No longer are such schools and staff as so constrained by their physical limitations. They have been able to develop virtual collaboration and use technology  and social media to facilitate this so that this can be almost instant instead of delayed, as was common in previous years. However, helpful and useful as such on-line collaboration is, it is of a different type to that which happens when colleagues come together face to face to collaborate and share the development programme. Clusters and learning communities organised and driven local authorities have helped, but these tend to be populated by headteachers and managers, with not so many opportunities, or resources, for other staff to get together regularly to collaborate.

So, I think it is admirable that two headteachers and their teams have got together and, instead of bemoaning their lot and settling for less than others, have thought creatively and come up with a solution that hopefully meets their needs and improves outcomes for all the pupils in their schools. I was at their inaugrial session with representatives of the General Teaching Council Scotland (GTCS) as the school leadership sought to promote enquiry practices amongst staff and to stop the constant search for panaceas or following the latest fads and trends. Having met the headteachers and their principal teachers last term, I sensed their frustration at where they were and their determination to embrace something different that would lead to sustained and embedded improvements in practice. They had heard me speak about the impact of practitioner enquiry in the schools I lead and they wanted to embark on their own journey which would break the mould of how they had approached school and professional development they had previously followed. At this first meeting they brought all the staff together to begin their collaborative journey, and they were signposting its importance to everyone by having this first session at the end of the very busy first week of the new school session. I was there to talk about my experience with practitioner enquiry and the lessons we had learned over five years of the adoption of such approaches, to point out some of the challenges and successes they could expect, and to reassure them that myself and others would be around to provide support on their journey. The GTCS representatives were there to talk to about the professional standards in Scotland and how the adoption of enquiry approaches was central to them all. They demonstrated how and why such an approach was seen as key to the professional organisation and how this had been identified as significant in Graham Donaldson's review of professional teacher development in 'Teaching Scotland's Future' written on behalf of the Scottish Government. They were also able to demonstrate how the adoption of enquiry approaches would support Professional Update that all teachers in Scotland are required to complete every five years. This validates and recognises their professional development activities and the impact this has had for their pupils. They talked of the standard for career long professional development and advised the teaching staff of how they might go about gaining 'Professional Recognition' from the GTCS as a result of their enquiries and their professional engagement with research. Hopefully, they felt excited and reassured by all that they heard and did not leave feeling fazed or overwhelmed. I will check in with the headteachers next week to see what the response really was, even though that received by myself and the two reps from GTCS was very positive.

To me what this represents is a wonderful example of system-leadership being demonstrated by the two headteachers who lead these schools. System-leadership involves all school leaders helping to shape and produce a self-improving system which recognises their responsibilities to think, and have a role, outside of their own immediate schools and for the benefit of all pupils within the system. In a world of diminishing resources and less and less support being available or delivered from the centre, it is beholden on all school leaders to recognise their system-leadership roles and to think creatively in order to keep developing their schools, and support others to do the same The two headteachers I am working with have identified an issue, have researched this issues by reading and engaging with other leaders, have come up with a strategy to develop practice, and have informed this with data and research. This is a model of a continuous process of development that they are wanting all in their schools to embrace. I wish them well, I will support them as much as I can as part of my system-leadership role and responsibilities, and I have no doubt about challenges they will face. Equally I have no doubts about the successes and growth they will experience on their journey. I applaud them for it and I think there are lessons for many in the approach they have taken to the issues they have faced.

Watch ourt for more reports to follow on how their journey progresses and the insights gained.

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