The Importance of System Leadership

This week the news was full of the “attainment gap” between the “best” and “worst” schools’ GCSE results. The Department of Education said it was “accelerating” its academy programme to bridge the “appalling” attainment gap. However, I do not believe that the academy and free school programme is the answer, but rather a solution in search of a problem. In creating thousands of publicly funded independent schools, I worry that the programme is in danger of undermining effective system leadership in this country.

What is system leadership?

Put simply, system leadership is about taking the wider view of education beyond your own school walls. Although we are accountable for students within our own institutions, we are responsible for those beyond them. As I have progressed in my career, the importance of system leadership has become ever more stark, and the opportunities and challenges for developing it more widespread.

As a Head of Department, I remember attending local authority Heads-of-English meetings three times a year. These were powerful drivers of CPD and sharing good practice, facilitated and led by advisors from the authority. These people had visited all the schools in the area and were able to deliver an overview of current national policy development and match expertise from one school to needs in another. They were energising, and ensured that leaders of English departments across the region had access to the same high-quality messages. This is a good model to me of how system leadership works. If someone had come up with a great way to track assessment across Key Stage 3, it didn’t just stay in their school – it spread and was adapted, borrowed and adopted across the region.

The forces working against successful system leadership

Academies, in opting out of local authority control, remove the authority as a viable provider of system leadership. I recognise that I was lucky in the experience described above, and that not all local authorities were able to deliver the same high-quality support and networking that I describe. However, the stated aim of the academies programme is for all schools to become publicly funded independent schools – and one of the dangers of independence is cutting yourself off from pre-existing networks of support.

The performance tables, likewise, pit schools against one another in competition. Confession time: I have fallen into the trap on the publication of the performance tables of pressing the “sort” function at the top of each column to see how we’ve done. I have celebrated when we’ve been at the top. I have been irritated when we’re 7th or 8th in the table. Once, I even caught myself being pleased that another local school had seen their results dip, meaning that we leapfrogged them in the tables. I performed ritual self-flagellation in horror and shame afterwards, taking a long hard look in the mirror and asking myself “What, will these hands ne’er be clean?” But the tables are set up to provide those competitive comparisons which can work against successful system leadership. Where is the motivation to help neighbouring schools, when we are set up to compete against them?

I read with dismay an article in the TES highlighting a section in the consultation document published by the DfE on secondary school accountability measures. In section 7.1, admittedly for the first year only, the proposal is to “use a relative measure for the floor standard. In this approach we would identify the worst performing number of schools, rather than those below a pre-determined floor standard.” In other words, schools would be competing not to be in the bottom x% of schools on the new accountability measures, rather than to be above a particular score on the measure. Where is the incentive there to share best practice with your neighbour? Your neighbour will be – in fact, as well as in name – your rival school.

The good news – where system leadership is thriving

I realise I laid into academies earlier. I stand by the paragraph – that there is a risk to independence. However, astute Headteachers have been alert to this danger and created new alliances and networks to ensure that they are not isolated. Some of these are through academy chains, not all of which are evil for-profit privateers comandeering schools against their will and sacking all the staff over the age of 35. Some of the academy chains – I might point to the Cabot Federation in Bristol as an example – are predicated on successful system leadership and David Carter has blogged about the excellent model of distributed leadership that is being developed there.

Although local authorities seem to be largely spent as drivers of networked school improvement at secondary level, schools are doing it for themselves. Teaching School Alliances are another way of developing and formalising these relationships for CPD and teacher training between institutions. Yes, they are a threat to university-level initial teacher training, and a balance needs to be struck, but they are positive moves for school-led systems to develop training.

There are also many more informal arrangements. Locally I know that the Outstanding Facilitator Programme is beginning to enable school-to-school development of teaching and learning programmes, and there is a similar model of school-to-school Leadership Development which I am involved in. These are good programmes and being delivered and driven by serving teachers and education leaders is both a blessing (they are “real”, in context, and tailored) and a curse (they cannot be the top priority of the people involved).

And then there is Twitter, the blogosphere, Teachmeets, online forums from The Guardian Teacher Network, the TES and others. There are plenty of great blogs singing the praises of online collaboration (like this and this) and I am a fully signed-up convert to all of it. My practice and in particular my leadership role have been transformed since I started using twitter as a tool for my job, and since I properly started following and reading teacher blogs. The richness and generosity of fellow professionals in sharing best practice is staggering and, for those in the loop, it is an energising and affirming experience. I need only look at the international spread of Ross McGill’s 5 minute plan to see the power of twitter and blogging in spreading a genuinely good idea.


Twitter and blogging is really only hitting the relatively few teachers in the loop. What about those who aren’t? The onus is on every teacher to share best practice and raise standards within our school system, not just the school we are employed in. The academy programme has dismantled the mechanism of local authority support which was supposed to ensure that the system was led effectively. I worry that the fractured nature of 2309 publicly funded independent schools will lead to a greater achievement gap, rather than a smaller one, unless there is proper system leadership in place to ensure that this doesn’t happen. And, in the absence of any meaningful DfE-led strategic system leadership, the onus falls on us, the teachers and leaders in local schools, to make sure it happens on a local level through partnerships, chains, federations and alliances, and on a national one through the online community.

6 thoughts on “The Importance of System Leadership

  1. Great post – I’m glad you recognised the examples of good partnerships made in Academy schools – the CLF even book out the conference hall at UWE a week or so after the West of England ICT Conference and get all teachers from all the schools together for CPD – powerful stuff.

    Regarding Performance Tables though, in a way we ARE competing against schools local to us (unless at capacity in Y7 and Y12/Y13). Schools across the country sell their ethos and vision to pupils and parents through their prospectus, open days/evenings and through their celebration of exam results – it’s only natural and that the latter is the only one that can be quantified, measured and compared.

    • Thanks for the comment! Yes, there’s no doubt we are in a marketplace and schools compete in all kinds of ways – possibly not all of them bad! But my point about competition between schools is that it must not get in the way of collaboration. Schools, teachers and leaders should not be tempted to “hog” best practice because it gives them the edge over the competition. That will lead to a few strong schools and a weak system. Together – collaboratively – we all benefit and the education system improves. I think. I hope!

      • I find our B&NES Heads of Department meetings absolutely invaluable – unfortunately there’s only 3 of them a year, for less than an afternoon each in time. The whole-day LA meetings of yesteryear were much more powerful.

  2. Hi Chris,

    Some schools in some LAs would have seen Academy Status as ‘the only game in town’ at various points in this sorry process. Become an Academy and take advantage of the freedoms available, plus £500,000+ (for example) over two years. The alternative was to stay maintained by an LA which could implode at any minute. To have turned down that opportunity as a school that already receives the lowest funding (per student) in our LA would, it could be argued, letting down the students who are with us right now. I think it’s also fair to say that jobs may have been saved also in our case.

    Being an Academy doesn’t mean that you stop collaborating with non Academies or other chains if the opportunity is there. We are a school without any strong tie to another school but we use our existing school and personal networks to bounce ideas around and have created a strong, local network as a result of our LAs virtual demise.

    Thankfully, school leaders are still a group with a great deal of integrity, in the main, so it is still possible to achieve excellent things in partnership. Today I was at an independent school sharing our thoughts on IT and information management. Great to swap ideas, make connections and an excellent round of assorted sandwiches for lunch I should add.

    Great post, as always, by the way.

    • Thank you! Yes, I hope I wasn’t too hard on academies and I recognise that there are advantages. I also recognise that the current climate makes academisation a desirable (the only?) option in many cases. I also completely agree that school leaders are acting with integrity and drive to maintain existing networks and build new ones – this is critical to the success of or education system. I suppose my point is that, in the age of academies, it’s up to us far more than it has ever been before as consistent top-down systems have been dismantled. And that means that collaboration becomes something we have to choose to do more than ever before – and I hope we continue to do so!

  3. Pingback: A Letter to my NQT self | Teaching: Leading Learning

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