'System leadership' is the latest big idea to come from government for raising achievement. But getting past the rhetoric, it is a label that describes the way that school and college leaders are already starting to work.
We hear a lot from the government and from the National College for School Leadership (NCSL) about 'system leadership'.
Too much of the discussion of system leadership, however, focuses on the hero-head 'turning schools round' before jetting off to the next project. Too little highlights the need for sustainable leadership and the well-researched evidence that success depends on the whole leadership team, not just on an individual.
Yet it is not as simple as that. There are individuals whose impact beyond their own institution is remarkable. And there are many ways in which a large number of school and college leaders help to develop the wider education system.
Early in the autumn term there will be an announcement of the first cohort of National Leaders of Education (NLE). Sue Kirkham and I were on the planning group for the NLE concept.
The idea first surfaced in the 2005 white paper and sounded very much like a prize for hero-heads. The planning group - which included Professor Tim Brighouse and several ASCL members, and which was ably chaired by NCSL Chief Executive Steve Munby - turned the idea into something much more useful.
The group acknowledged that there is an important role for some heads in supporting schools in difficulty but, importantly, it also provided recognition to the head's school as a National Support School, to give credit to those 'back at the ranch' whose efforts enable the head to work elsewhere for some of the time and who may indeed themselves be sharing that external work.
System leadership was a major theme in Leadership that Lasts, the book written for ASCL by Robert Hill and published in March 2006. Partnership working with other institutions was identified as one of the five main drivers of improvement, with the majority of schools in the survey already working with other schools and colleges.
Initiatives such as Excellence in Cities have been a catalyst for partnership working. The Specialist Schools and Academies Trust has always emphasised schools working together, but the extent to which specialist schools collaborate has grown in the last two years, not least through the Raising Achievement, Transforming Learning project and in developing personalised learning, with the SSAT/ASCL conferences and publications acting as an important stimulus.
The development of academies is beginning to change, with more attention now given to academies as part of the local family of schools, working together on admissions, excluded pupils and much more. Academy plans developed by a group that includes the local authority, as is happening in Sunderland and elsewhere, means that the leaders of these academies will be strongly tied in to local arrangements and hence committed to local system leadership.
The second of the ten principles of sustainable leadership identified in Leadership that Lasts is 'wanting the best for all young people in the area'. The book recognised that, while the first duty of a leader is to the people for whom he or she is directly responsible, an increasing number of leaders are concluding that they share a responsibility for all the young people in their area.
Federations of schools and consortia of 16 to 19 or, increasingly, 14 to 19 providers have to pool some of the autonomy of individual institutions for the greater good of the group. All involved in the leadership of such groups are system leaders.
The government's proposals for 14 to 19 diplomas depend on schools and colleges working together to provide the entitlement for young people that will shortly be enshrined in law. Similarly, the government expects all schools to be involved in groups to deal with hard-to-teach students and to ensure that the burden of educating these young people does not fall disproportionately on any one school in the group.
Funding and accountability
School and college leaders have shown themselves willing and able to do this, but the main constraint remains the government's own policies on school funding and accountability, which still focus on the individual school. The government, as ASCL has said frequently, needs to provide more incentives to partnership working in order to make it easier for leaders to exercise system leadership.
The Every Child Matters agenda provides a further area for system leadership. Good local authorities will provide strategic direction for this work, but school and college leaders will have to work together if the agenda is to be successfully implemented.
Federations of two or more schools are increasing in number, especially in the primary sector, where the very small size of some schools makes them uneconomic and where, quite often, it is impossible to appoint a headteacher when the incumbent leaves.
Among secondary school federations, one of the longest standing is the Weston Federation, which is a group of six schools, formed in the belief that, working together, they could raise standards more than by working alone.
The federation is led by a strategic leadership team and has a director with headteacher status, advanced skills teachers working in more than one school, and subject leaders reviewing their colleagues' work in other schools. All these people are exercising system leadership.
Several hundred heads will be working in 2006-07 as school improvement partners (SIPs), carrying out the 'single conversation' with the leaders of other schools. Reports to ASCL headquarters on the pilot stage of this new scheme suggest that - especially where the SIP is a serving or recently retired head - he or she provides a high degree of support and the right kind of challenge.
There is no such arrangement in the college sector at present. The current FE white paper talks of a new relationship with colleges, and ASCL is monitoring very closely what this could mean in practice for college leaders.
Other school leaders act as assistant inspectors, notably in the independent sector, where inspection teams comprise almost entirely senior staff from other schools.
An increasing number of leaders support other schools and colleges through consultancy work. All of the ASCL consultants are serving or recently retired senior school or college leaders. They have the authority derived from their experience and offer much appreciated support to the leaders or governors that use them. That is why the evaluations of the ASCL consultants' work are consistently positive.
Best in-service training
Another way of exercising system leadership is to join ASCL Council. Every autumn we elect new district representatives in some parts of the country. In the spring we elect several national representatives. The 70 people who serve on Council - college principals, heads, deputy and assistant heads, and bursars from maintained and independent schools - provide a good cross-section of our membership.
The broad range of the discussions means that, as well as being 'the best in-service training I have ever had', in the words of many new Council members, all representatives have a say in ASCL policy.
Because of the association's influence among policy makers, ASCL Council members are having a real effect on the development of the system. That, too, is a form of system leadership, and I encourage you to consider standing for election at the next opportunity. I can guarantee that you will not be disappointed by the experience.
ASCL branch secretaries also offer system leadership in their local areas. It is vitally important that we do not leave local policy making to others. I know that members worry about the time commitment of being a branch secretary, but many areas now share the role between several people.
Not least because of the Every Child Matters agenda and the way in which local authority powers have been increased in the Education Bill, it is essential that there is a branch secretary in every area representing the interests of their fellow professionals in ASCL membership. At local level, this is an extremely important form of system leadership.
In its evidence to the important PricewaterhouseCoopers review of school leadership, ASCL is emphasising the wider role of school leaders, focusing very much on the team leadership that is essential if people are to have a role beyond their own school.
The hero model of the school or college leader is no longer appropriate. The modern leader is the head of a team that recognises above all a moral responsibility to the young people of the nation. The belief in the power of learning is backed by high professional standards among the staff and a purposeful ethos.
Increasingly, no school or college is an island and the opportunities - and the obligations - to exercise leadership beyond one's own institution are increasing. ASCL members are, in very many ways, already leading the system.
By John Dunford, ASCL General Secretary
© 2017 Association of School and College Leaders