Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

The road to excellence

hand holding monopoly hotel

A new report dissects how outstanding schools attain, maintain and then share success. It shows, among many other things, that great leadership demands exceptionally hard work, says John Dunford.

In 1978 I had an interview for the post of deputy head at Wright Robinson School in Manchester, one of eight deputy headship interviews I had before I was successful. I remember the day well, not least because after the interviews a local authority official emerged to the waiting candidates to reveal the decision and said "Mr Dun . . ." before remembering that I had in fact come second and correcting himself quickly.

In the late 1970s there were up to 400 candidates for deputy headship posts and I had really wanted this particular job because Wright Robinson had been featured in a ground-breaking HMI report, Ten Good Schools, published the previous year. The ten schools were a mixture of types, maintained and independent, but the common theme was the high quality of the leadership in each of them and the contribution that that leadership made to the success of the school.

This came to mind recently when Ofsted published Twelve Outstanding Secondary Schools: excelling against the odds, an analysis of the way in which schools serving challenging communities have built their success and sustained it.

My advice to ASCL members is that, if you read no other education publication this year, read this one. Have a highlighter pen and a notepad beside you and I guarantee that you will have more than a dozen good ideas to use in your school - no matter what its situation, maintained or independent, selective or non-selective, rural or urban - by the time you have finished. College members, who might see the word school in the title and ignore it, will also glean some useful ideas.

The schools, all of which had had two successive top-grade inspection reports, succeed for the reasons cited in the box on the right.

The first section of the report explains how the schools, some of which were in a very poor situation, moved forward to achieve excellence. There is no pretence that this was an easy path for any of them and readers are left in no doubt that leading such schools to success is very hard work indeed.

The quality of leadership is paramount and the leaders of these schools have knowingly taken on the task with an enormous sense of commitment and moral purpose. Their essential belief in people - students, staff, the community - is backed by their principles, sense of purpose, drive and emotional intelligence. All of these characteristics of these leaders are evident in the values and ethos of the schools. The report says of one of the schools: "The school lives its values."

'Like-minded people'

Very few leaders are able to start a new institution and recruit all the staff. Most inherit the staff from the previous regime, often steeped in very different ways from those we would like to see. The culture of an institution cannot be changed overnight so, according to the report, "the search starts on day one for like-minded people who share a philosophy and values," and works outwards from there.

Leadership is not confined to the head, nor even to the senior leadership team, but to all who share the philosophy and values. Leadership at all levels is a vitally important component of the success of all these schools and the growth of that leadership - and of the next generation of school leaders - is given very high priority. Although leadership structures vary between these 12 schools, most have a large senior leadership team and a flat structure with all constantly modelling the behaviours that the leadership is trying to encourage throughout the school. The heads and other senior leaders are very 'hands on' and are a constant presence around the school.

Leadership development is a priority from an early stage in teachers' careers with planned support and coaching complementing training and shadowing. Opportunities for leadership of school projects are given to less experienced staff, including newly qualified teachers, as part of home-grown aspiring leader programmes.

These schools all have very good examination results, but never rest on their laurels. They genuinely believe that there is "no ceiling to achievement", as one school puts it, so they keep their focus on high quality teaching and good learning; they track the progress of every student, including the 'ghost children' who would otherwise drift through their school career without ever being noticed; they support those who need it and follow up with individual help. At the core is a very clear behaviour code and an emphasis on staff interpreting it consistently.

This is tied in to a strong culture of professional development and renewal with lesson observation - especially peer observation - regarded as a routine way to continue to improve the quality of teaching.

It is these features that are highlighted in the second section of the book - on how the schools have sustained the excellence that they built in the first place. The schools all regard "the continual improvement of learning, teaching and pedagogy as their most important activity". Student voice plays an important part in development and student views on teaching and learning are encouraged.

The focus on leadership development in all these schools means that the staff are well prepared when posts are advertised in the school and so a lot of internal promotions occur. This helps to achieve consistency, especially at middle management level.

No monopoly

The third section of the report explains how these schools look outwards and, through the London Challenge or as National Support Schools, help to raise achievement and improve behaviour elsewhere too. As 'beacon schools' used to find, there is no monopoly on good practice and National Support Schools inevitably learn from the schools they are assisting. As a result, results tend to improve in both the supporter and the supported schools.

ASCL has long championed these opportunities for wider leadership of the school and college system, not just by the National Leaders of Education who head these schools, but by creating increased leadership capacity so that support can be given at whatever level is needed by the receiving school.

The examples in this book demonstrate clearly how ASCL members are leading the school system, not only in their own schools and in local school partnerships, but in both the thinking and action that will lead the next stage of school improvement.


The right direction

The schools in the report succeed for the following reasons:

  • They excel at what they do, not just occasionally but for a high proportion of the time.

  • They prove constantly that disadvantage need not be a barrier to achievement.

  • They put students first, invest in their staff and nurture their communities.

  • They have strong values and high expectations, applied consistently.

  • They fulfil individual potential through providing outstanding teaching, rich opportunities for learning, and encouragement and support for each student.

  • They are highly inclusive, having regard for the personal development and wellbeing of every student.

  • Their achievements do not happen by chance, but by highly reflective, carefully planned and implemented strategies.

  • They operate with a very high degree of internal consistency.

  • They are constantly looking for ways to improve further.

  • They have outstanding and well-distributed leadership.

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