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Leading schools in the 21st century

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So, we are nearly a fifth of the way into the 21st Century and the challenge of leading schools has never been greater. We are functioning in an age of scrupulous accountability where punitive responses to poor performance are commonplace; we are operating with reduced financial resources at a time when we are expected to do more. We are having to provide for and attend to individuals who appear to have more needs than any previous generation. Wrestling with this challenge places leaders and their staff in a seemingly impossible position.

Increased government of schools

If you chart back over the recent decades, the direction from governments (both national and local) was increasingly obvious. You could assert that the arrival of the National Curriculum in 1988 heralded the commencement of the new era of governmental intrusion in education. This intensified in the 1990s with the arrival of Ofsted and performance tables and in the 2000s with the national strategies and Michael Barber's 'deliverology' (creating the notion of a science of delivery that saw education as one of its lead projects). One of the first pieces of legislation introduced into law by the Coalition was the Academies Act in July 2010 and it signalled the intention to focus on transforming the structures of education in England. Schools were tempted with the allure of autonomy around curriculum. However, alongside this, academisation has seen a tightening of end of key stage assessment (particularly at key stage two and key stage four) with the imposition of more challenging and focused tests/exams. Inevitably this has seen schools adjusting their curricula in response and with Ofsted’s 2019 framework looking far more closely at 'what is provided' in schools, we are clearly set for an interesting period.

Yet we will continue to find ways through. How? The progression to a school-led system means we have a unique opportunity to create a model for education that is formed by those who know and understand the landscape best. There are openings and opportunities that schools might be able to lead on.


Schools filling the space vacated by Local Authorities

With the progressive dismantling of local authorities, schools (whether maintained or academies) may be able to negotiate to deliver or provide services or functions previously offered by the LA, ultimately to the benefit of children and young people. For example, Cambridgeshire devolved the operation of 'Education Other Than At School' (EOTAS which formerly included the PRUs and Medical Needs provision) to its secondary schools in 2010. Since then, access to budgets have enabled schools to commission and develop their own provision and to take a responsibility for all learners. One cluster of 14 secondaries has a long-standing contract with a local organisation of counsellors, Centre 33, to provide identified and targeted support for those who need the most support. Similarly, the schools talk to each other about placing students on a short-term or longer basis in another school, removing the need for Permanent Exclusion. A strong partnership is developing with the main alternative provision organisation in the area, TBAP Multi-Academy Trust.


Leading school improvement

The phrase 'school-led system' has been bandied about for a few years now, but with the rising number of teaching schools (along with the growth of MATs and decline of LAs), it is perhaps starting to mean something significant. In Cambridgeshire, four teaching school alliances (two recently established and two that have been operating for a number of years) have come together to form a network (called Nucleus) to collaborate on the delivery of ITT, school-to-school support and CPD for staff. As well as making budgetary sense, it also offers increased capacity and capability with the network. Representatives from Nucleus, along with the well-established Cambridge Teaching Schools Network and other alliances and teaching schools are collaborating with Cambridgeshire and Peterborough LA colleagues to support delivery of the Big Three across the region. This sees schools of all types working together for the benefit of children and young people, regardless of status. Indeed, in some cases schools within the same MAT are part of different teaching school alliances.  


New curricula

It is not just with the most vulnerable that schools might have the opportunity to forge their own path. Even with the caveats above regarding GCSE and key stage two, schools are attempting to offer new and innovative curricula. At Impington Village College, which has long been well-regarded for its offer of the International Baccalaureate Diploma (post-16), has taken the successful principles and approaches of this model for its sixth form and offered a programme of creativity, action and service for all its students (regardless of age or ability). The programme sees enrichment classes open to students and whether Horticulture or Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic, the young people work and learn together in mixed-age and mixed-ability groups. Its impact has been very positive.

Other schools (and in other phases) have been developing different approaches. Cottenham Primary School which serves a community with wide gaps in ability has opted to give its pupils access to a knowledge-rich curriculum, particularly to promote achievement with its more disadvantaged children.  As the school states, 

“We deliver a knowledge-rich curriculum. Whilst we use the national curriculum as a framework, we have decided to place a much greater emphasis on exposing children to the 'powerful knowledge' that we feel is necessary in order to truly understand the world around us, as well as to be able to make informed and accurate observations and connections. In addition to increasing the children's cultural literacy, we believe that we are equipping them with the essential foundations for the next stage of their educational journeys, and beyond.”

Alongside this, the school uses Doug Lemov's ’Teach Like a Champion’ teaching techniques. These also enable us to apply what cognitive science tells us about how humans learn; with a focus on providing children with multiple opportunities to practice and consolidate what they are being taught, all within a supportive, inclusive and dynamic environment.

Ofsted rightly praised the school (in 2017) for its 'enriching and broad curriculum' which gives 'many opportunities to explore and investigate different subjects, including exciting activities, various trips and visiting speakers'.


The way ahead

So, whether it is in approaches to the curriculum or in collaborative networks or finding better ways to support the most vulnerable, leading schools has never, perhaps, been more interesting. School leaders also have better access to what works through organisations such as the Education Endowment Foundation and through informal networks such as those promoted through Twitter, which is widely recognised as one of the best tools for professional learning and development accessible to those in education. #SLTChat has become one of the go-to places (virtually) each Sunday evening from 8.00 to 8.30pm. Anyone (with a Twitter account) can participate. There really is no excuse for not finding out interesting and better ways to lead schools.

Of course, conferences still offer formal occasions to network and hear from the best and strongest speakers. NAHT's Secondary Conference this year is entitled 'Leading Schools in the 21st Century' and will be an occasion for delegates to hear from Dame Alison Peacock, Vic Goddard and Laura McInerney and participate in workshops delivered by school leaders and practitioners. Along with its central and convenient location (in Birmingham), it really can offer a great opportunity for networking and learning.

To book on to the Leading schools in the 21st Century conference click here

Robert Campbell is CEO of the Morris Education Trust, based in Cambridgeshire, and an NLE. He chairs the NAHT's Secondary Council and is a founder member of the head teachers' roundtable. He tweets from @robcampbe11.

First published 22 January 2019