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Responsibility within leadership – Deborah Leek-Bailey OBE

Deborah Leek-Bailey OBE website
Thought leadership posts are written by guest writers from the world of education. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of NAHT.

As a new year unfolds it is common to reflect on past achievements and consider our focus as leaders of a significant number of staff and pupils. Leadership is a curious thing because it is not only a quantifiable skill set but it is also linked to personal characteristics. We instinctively respond to those who manifest certain leadership traits, such as inspiring others and empowering them to succeed. Having assisted in the redesign of many leadership courses, including the National Professional Qualification for Headship and the National Professional Qualification for Senior Leadership I am still aware that we have a long way to go before there is equality of opportunity and appropriate aspiration amongst our young people, so that anyone with the potential to lead, can do so, regardless of their ethnicity, gender or postcode. The question I would ask is how well are we preparing existing pupils to assume leadership positions in a rapidly complex and provocative world? Do we as school leaders ensure that they all have a breadth of opportunity, are we confident that, along with the leadership team, all our teachers are role models, leading in the classroom and identifying leadership potential?

Whilst a new Secretary of State grapples with the enormity of his portfolio it is probably timely to reassess the way in which we prepare our students for assuming leadership positions. Some will be engaged in leadership within the community, many have been assigned leadership roles in school but what if they have the talent but lack the knowledge to utilise these leadership skills? If only some schools could embed leadership within the wider curriculum, aren’t we perpetuating elitism? How confident are we that amongst our leavers there might not be some who could have achieved unparalleled success but for a careers officer suggesting a different route? Damien Hinds has just informed educationalists that he wishes to give young people the chance to upskill throughout their lives, through high-quality degrees, apprenticeships and other technical and vocational qualifications. Let us hope that this Secretary of State consolidates and uses his interest in social mobility for the benefit of all school leavers, by ensuring that young people can develop skills which will suitably equip them for a competitive global economy.

I reflected on the above when I recently observed a recruitment officer at RAF Cranwell, near Grantham. The RAF has a rigorous programme for leadership selection and yet they also have exceptional results. Cranwell is the main recruiting, selection and training centre for our country’s Air Force officers. I observed officer recruitment, from initial interview to final selection. I was particularly struck by a leaderless exercise, whereby individuals reverted to type and some instinctively used initiative and strong interpersonal skills to assert themselves, whilst others tried to dominate. Inevitably the most successful groups were those with the ability to collaborate, whilst still having someone in charge. They demonstrated high emotional intelligence. It was also fascinating to observe how the RAF process established an ability to influence others through assigning an individual in “command”. The team building exercises and selection process was overseen by highly skilled RAF personnel and the overall assessment is based on whether evidence meets the criteria. It is an empowering form of apprenticeship because officers gain a level 5 diploma and emerge with diverse career opportunities ahead of them and in roles such as communications, intelligence and medicine, which they may previously never have considered. They also do not need to remain in the RAF but the majority choose to do so. The RAF Headquarters at High Wycombe analyses the outflow through statistical evidence and success levels are high with an average return of service much higher than in industry. They like innovative and lateral thinkers, rather than the preconceived notion of “followers”.

The experience of the applicants was diverse. Some had clearly been given interview training and dynamic opportunities but others had come from schools where resources were limited and yet the selection process accommodated them all. It was clear that the RAF is aiming for a diverse intake and that they are looking to recruit lifelong leaders. I felt humbled by the passion with which our young people expressed their wish to contribute to a brighter future and in an interview, they provided many sensitive insights into military operations and the peacekeeping role that is a vital part of being an RAF leader. Battling against the gender stereotype were young women keen to enter the world of science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) who will be the first of a generation representing minority ethnic groups. Recently Wing Commander Glynis Dean was nominated for her work developing STEM learning to promote opportunities for young women in technical specialisations, particularly engineering. Only 8% of UK engineers are women and yet this sector is responsible for a quarter of the UK’s GDP, so let us hope that the RAF is successful with this initiative. It is curious to consider that the RAF has a proven track record in areas where some schools are struggling – diversity, social mobility, inclusion and increasing social capital. I certainly felt reassured by the sophisticated process of selection at RAF Cranwell. The recruitment of Black and Asian officers has increased by 40%, from 1 in 30 to 1 in 10 under 18 and the officers I spoke to readily admit to having to change the culture of the organisation for this to happen.

Since Autumn 2016, the RAF has specifically targeted educational establishments and communities with a high proportion of Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) individuals to ensure improved engagement. As a result, 76% more females and 100% more BAME joined the RAF in 2016-17 than in 2014-15. These pupils reflect our society and, as schools strive for greater community cohesion, we need to ensure that such opportunities are not missed by those who could flourish, as apprentices, rather than attend University. As a father of a recruit expressed: “The opportunities the RAF provides in apprenticeship are second to none.” The unique contribution that the RAF makes to social mobility was repeatedly echoed by applicants from minority circumstances: “It is opening a door for people of different backgrounds and giving them opportunities that we would not otherwise have.” Sponsorship is also available to those with a specific ability.

The RAF has been recognised as a lead employer and assures me that social mobility is embedded into the RAF ethos, with 30% of all their commissioned officers originating from the ranks. Ofsted found the outcome of learners to be outstanding. The RAF is working closely with the Careers and Enterprise Company and train all British Aerospace employees. Employers like Siemens need to engage more, as well as the Department for Education. The RAF has a proactive system because staff are aware of any recruitment opportunities and speak with authority and credibility. I observed RAF personnel offering constructive advice and managing disappointment with a solution based outlook. Mostly, however, I witnessed dedicated individuals, prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice on our behalf, applying integrity to a leadership recruitment process and offering unique career opportunities and aspiration in much the same way as many of us would wish to do ourselves.
 Deborah Leek-Bailey OBE

A former head teacher and founding Director of DLB Leadership Associates Ltd. Specialising in strategic analysis, leadership and change management, DLB Leadership Associates work with boards and international governments, as well as senior leaders in business and education.

Deborah has advised ministers on multi-stakeholder partnership engagement, focusing on raising aspirations, attainment, and social mobility. She chaired the Independent/State Schools Partnership  Forum from 2013 to 2017 and was previously an NCTL National Leadership Associate.

A journalist and adjudicator for the TES School Awards, Deborah has published work on outstanding leadership, as a researcher and is a participant of many “Think Tanks” on leadership provision. 

Deborah was awarded the lifetime Millennium Award for her work in South Africa “effecting positive global social change, in the areas of HIV and AIDS awareness”, an OBE for services to education and a “London for Londoners Award” for making an outstanding contribution to the lives of young people.