Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

Forward thinking

ASCL's new publication on sustainable leadership raises a number of critical issues, including the need for school leaders to invest in themselves and to take on a bolder role in shaping the future thinking on school improvement.

This month sees the launch of a landmark ASCL publication on school leadership, Leadership that Lasts: Sustainable school leadership in the 21st century.

The sixth and final chapter sets out ten principles of sustainable school leadership. In the words of the author, Robert Hill, they represent "a road map for individual schools, for groups of schools working together and for the school system as a whole".

ASCL members will identify strongly with both the analysis and the conclusions of this book, which ends with these words:

Being a school leader is both a privilege and a demanding challenge. To have the responsibility for helping to shape young lives is a high calling. But it can become an all-consuming and exhausting passion. It is a role that brings immense satisfaction but at times great frustration. Sustaining the vision, the energy and the enthusiasm can be hard.

These ten principles for sustainable leadership do not provide all the answers to these dilemmas but they do constitute what might be termed a rough guide to survival. Applying the principles will enable schools leaders to grow: to do better for their schools and their pupils, but also for themselves. And to do it in partnership with others.

The principles do not just point the way for school leaders. They also place obligations on government as well. Ministers and policy makers have a responsibility for creating an environment that trusts rather than instructs; that challenges but does not overwhelm; that looks to support rather than to cast aside as its instinctive response to problems; that affirms rather than blames; and that trains and plans for the future rather than hopes for the best.

Sustainable school leadership is a big prize. Like anything worthwhile it is worth striving for. It will require effort and persistence. The example of school leaders across the country who have already put their shoulder to the wheel of turning these ten principles into practice should inspire all of us involved in the school system to play our part in creating leadership that lasts.

This book is an essential read for ASCL members and for all who are involved in leading the education service at local and national level. It is written from the unique perspective of someone who spent eight years at the heart of government, as special adviser to Tony Blair and Charles Clarke, and who, through this project, has seen for himself how school leaders are working at the present time.

Bigger, bolder role

The ten principles also, in Robert Hill's words, "provide a catalyst for school leaders to take a bigger and bolder role in leading future thinking on school improvement and education policy".

He believes strongly that school leaders have a major contribution to make to the wider education service, first through shaping national policy, and second through collaborative working to create increased educational opportunities for all the young people in the partnership schools.

During his time as Charles Clarke's special adviser at the DfES, I had frequent contact with Robert, who recognised - more than many people I have worked with in Whitehall - that government policies were useless unless they could be implemented successfully in schools. He consulted ASCL and other associations and he talked to individual school leaders before the policy was shaped.

Leading this project for ASCL, Robert has seen - and reflected in the book - the immense job that is being done by secondary school leaders, not just in implementing government policy, but in taking forward the educational agenda through their own advanced thinking about what is needed to raise achievement and opportunity.

Sharing the burden

One such theme that is adding to the workload of school leaders, but is also sharing the burden, is increasing partnership between schools and their leaders, for many of whom it has become the norm. Individual schools, we increasingly believe - and certainly the system as a whole - can achieve more and improve faster by sharing expertise and working together.

At one level, this may mean extending the school curriculum by offering optional courses at a local college or another school. At its best, it means that school leaders feel as much responsibility for the education of all the young people in their area as they do for the students in their own school.

Much of this partnership working is aimed at increasing the range of courses for post-16 students or, increasingly, in the 14 to 19 age range. Other consortia of schools deal with hard-to-teach students or share teacher expertise in subject areas. One of the case studies in the book, Serlby Park in north Nottinghamshire, is a 3-18 all- through school, featured here of this edition of Leader.

It is not only transfer at age 11 (or whenever) that is made easier in this amalgamation. Curriculum continuity and pastoral care must also be more straightforward and it will be interesting to see if the so-called 'dip' in performance during key stage 3 is reduced when the move from year 6 to year 7 is seamless.

As schools develop more extended provision, it is surely logical that 3 to 18 schools, or federations of a secondary school and its feeder primary schools, will become more common.

Route to headship

An important dimension of partnership working is distributed leadership, on which thinking at school level is developing fast. The changing structure of the leadership team, with an increasing proportion of senior support staff - bursars, senior administrative officers, heads of social inclusion, for example - and a trend towards flatter senior management structures are noted in the book.

One important aspect of flatter structures is often overlooked, however - preparation of the next generation of heads. I have heard from assistant head ASCL members, who have as much responsibility as deputy heads in other schools, but work within a flatter leadership structure, that they cannot get on to short lists for headships because of their job title.

There are some examples of assistant heads being appointed to headships without first becoming a deputy, but they are few. Heads and governors drawing up shortlists need to look at the range of responsibilities carried by the applicant, not at the job title.

It is especially frustrating that this should be an issue when so many schools are struggling to recruit headteachers. We know that, for school leaders contemplating the next move in their career, workload is a serious consideration.

To help address this, also in March ASCL is publishing a book titled Work-life Balance: Myth or Reality. Written by practising school leaders, it offers their own insights into improving work-life balance and reducing stress. I am sure members will find something in the book to help them.

Personal investment

One recommendation in Robert Hill's book is particularly interesting in this respect and that is the need for school leaders to realise the importance of investing in their own renewal and have a mentor or coach, a support mechanism that is taken for granted by many leaders in other fields.

Not only do these people bring an objective eye to the way in which one is organising one's working life, but they also bring an external perspective on current leadership issues.

Perhaps school improvement partners (SIPs) will fulfil this role, or maybe it should be carried out by someone without an official position in relation to the school. Equally, an independent external facilitator can be useful at strategic leadership sessions, again bringing a different perspective for colleagues who may have worked together for many years.

All of this will help, too, in growing the next generation of school leaders, a responsibility that we all have to take very seriously as the demographic time bomb ticks away and a high proportion of school leaders see retirement no longer as a distant prospect.

Changes to governance

This is a particular responsibility for governing bodies, which are increasingly faced with the problem of very short short-lists of candidates for headship. There have been many studies of school leadership in recent years, but Leadership that Lasts is, I think, unique in looking at both leadership and governance, recognising that the two are interlinked and that governance structures, in particular, will have to change as extended schools become the norm.

Underlying the recommendations in this book is the concern that the job of school leadership is becoming unsustainable, both for the leaders themselves and for the system as a whole.

Pay and conditions have to be improved, as ASCL pointed out strongly in its evidence to the STRB in 2005. We shall emphasise this even more strongly in our evidence to the leadership review recommended by the STRB and established recently by the government.

But Leadership that Lasts recognises that sustainability is also about the way in which the school system is governed, placing immense demands on school leaders. What Robert Hill, with his objective eye and political experience, calls "the conveyor belt of change" has to be addressed, so that national policy reforms are better thought through and are on a timescale that permits both proper implementation and thorough evaluation.

The cumulative demands of change are as important as the individual changes themselves. Perhaps above all the other recommendations in ASCL's book, that is the one that members would most profoundly wish for.

By John Dunford ASCL Gerneral Secretary

© 2017 Association of School and College Leaders