School Leadership for the 2020s, what should it look like?

If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans” Woody Allen

I recently had the pleasure of meeting and having dinner with a group of international school founders and IB school principals. The conversations were wide ranging especially around the issues of what international mindedness and a holistic curriculum looked like in practice in their schools. What has been left more in my mind, as I reflected later on, is the discussion we had around school leadership and the development of future school leaders, especially looking ahead to the challenges and changing landscape of education in the coming 2020s. A school founder, who was new to investing in education, made the point in the discussion that in her mind a school leader, whatever the national context and culture, needed to have the following approach for now and the next new decade: a commercial CEO’s mind, an intellectually curious soul and an educator’s heart. A stimulating discussion and a delicious meal aside, I have been pondering this last point for a few days since the meeting and not only wondering as a school leader in a more commercial independent school setting rather than a state/public school setting but also questioning whether this is the case or not at all for all school leaders regardless.  Finally, will school leadership be markedly different in the 2020s?

School leadership here in the UK and in similar education systems around the World, has been transformed on all levels since before the start of the Millennium. The strong emphasis on more autonomy in the role coupled with a significant increase in accountability and responsibility means the job description and role I have today as Wyedean principal is a lot different from the very first Wyedean principal, and probable role model for JK Rowling’s “Dumbledore”, my predecessor, Ken Smith. I have often looked around my room and wondered what all four of my predecessors must have thought at various times as they faced the challenges of their stewardship leading Wyedean School. The managerial and operational heavy role of my predecessors is more obvious when I look at documents like the old school log book and they certainly didn’t have the senior and middle leaders to support them as I am very fortunate to have now in 2018. There are many aspects of the role of leading a school community that have remained timeless including the very crucial task of being the person who leads and guides the whole school community.  When I first took up the role as principal it was this very fact that seemed the most daunting.  My good friend and colleague in the US, Dr Cherif Sadki, a very wise and experienced school leader, likened being principal to being mayor of a small town.  Cherif went onto say, everyone wants a piece of you and there is never a moment to yourself.

One of the reasons I wanted to write a blog on school leadership looking ahead to the 2020s is partially down to the fact there is a real concern that there are not enough school leaders emerging through the system but also the calibre of school leaders who can deal with the challenges in leading a school is also an issue. I will state quite clearly here, being a school leader and principal of Wyedean School is an absolute privilege and it is my honour to be able to have the trust of my school community and the wider community to lead their school and serve in this role. But it is also fair to say that it is not without its challenges not least adapting and preparing for a more challenging, changing, dysfunctional, fluid and unpredictable educational landscape. When I think back to my very first job interviews as a young history teacher and inevitably there was the final question along the lines of “Where do you see yourself in say four/five years?” I certainly didn’t answer “Headteacher”. My ambition was always to be a good teacher and enjoy what I did as a teacher of history and politics having an impact on the students I taught.  I was very fortunate to have worked for and with so many inspirational school leaders that as my career become more established and I began the route into middle and senior leadership as a head of history, IB coordinator, director of 6th Form, I found I enjoyed the ability to lead and have a positive influence over a wider range of educational areas from curriculum to pedagogy. One of the crucial lessons that has stayed with me all of my career is that in education we have to have a love of learning and a continuing interest in learning.  The best schools are those that have these remarkable professional learning communities in operation characterised by the absence of formal titles as individuals lead and instruct developing the learning community.  This is one of the strongest features of Wyedean School and the director of Teaching and Learning, Julie Smith, herself studying for a PhD, has been instrumental in the drive behind this especially using the Lesson Study programme for staff professional development.  Both OfSTED in January and Challenge Partners in November strongly recognised the “re-professionalisation” of teachers at Wyedean and the autonomy and trust they have been given.  The notion of a positive school culture is something I am responsible for and I get to establish what that will look like and directly influence day to day culture as principal.  I can influence the curriculum, learning in the classroom and the pastoral care but the organisation, systems and individuals in school all operating in a climate of professional trust and responsibility emanating from me as the principal is something that is timeless for effective school leadership.  It was a feature in the best schools of the 1970s and it will be a feature of the 2020s.

I am very conscious that I demonstrate that I am constantly involved in learning as the principal. I undertook my Masters in educational leadership as I moved to senior leadership, before becoming a Head I passed the very administrative heavy NPQH here in the UK, a very practical course but an important part of my training and I have continued to be a student of global learning, history and politics with various online courses through a range of universities worldwide. There is an interesting debate always about the integrity of the principal in a school in terms of “walking the walk” by being an accomplished teacher and demonstrating that constantly. To be able to “look colleagues in the eye in a Monday morning briefing”.  My personal belief is that a school leader to be effective in education has to have a background in teaching but I am no way the “best teacher” in my school.  I see so many colleagues teach and I am in awe of just how good they are in the classroom.   I think it is very difficult to understand what you are leading in schools though by not having this direct classroom experience.  Conversely, it is a very “British” idea for the Headteacher/Principal to be in the classroom more whereas in the US senior leaders are not in the classroom.  The most important role for me is to be able to allow the teachers to teach in a well-run organisation with a strong educational vision and climate.  The students are their number one priority but in order for that to be the sole focus a school leader for me has to make sure the organisation is effective, efficient and has a plan to where it is going. When I have spoken to aspiring Heads/Principals I have illustrated the importance of being highly visible and energetic but in terms of walking the walk there are so many ways that can be achieved through scheduled assemblies, some classroom teaching, intervention groups and mentoring, covering colleagues, taking on some specialist classes/clubs outside the formal curriculum. Just knowing the kids and not the ones who get sent to you for contravening the behaviour code.  It is up to the individual school leader but to undertake this role outside of the daily joy of working with young people, sharing their trials and tribulations, sharing their success and failures and just being there for them to ensure they have certainty and guidance is part and parcel of the fundamentals of why being involved is the only way.

One of the more frequent debates I read is about “moral or ethical leadership” in schools. I find it astonishing that this has to be explicitly made because for me it is obvious that if you work in education and you are fortunate to be entrusted with the progress and development of young people then your leadership couldn’t be anything else but moral and ethical.  Working in education is not for the faint hearted nor is it a career that you go into lightly.  It is a vocation and from Day 1 it is apparent that this is like no other job.  The rewards are incredible and the lows can leave you reflecting a long time after the event. Well-being, the perceived isolation and our sheer resilience as the roles grow more complex as much more support is needed for school leaders is something I hope the 2020s continues to develop more in depth as this is much needed from the current position.  School leaders are not machines, we have families and we do occasionally get things wrong. Shock horror!  Back in the 1970s I am fairly sure my predecessor Ken Smith didn’t contend with social media and the proliferation of daily life being played out online in the way we have to think about now both in our individual lives and in public.  This will only increase in the 2020s but so will our ability to use it in a positive way and close down the abuse and negative way it is used. And we are very much human when all said and done.

Which brings me back to my posh dinner with the school founders/owners and IB principals. One of the facets of being a school leader, I came to realise very early on in my career, is that a good commercial mind was key to understanding and leading a complex organisation.  I was fortunate to see and experience this in the US with American counterparts running their schools this way and in the independent school system in the UK. The school leader of the 2020s has been reading articles in publications such as Forbes and the Harvard Business Review for a number of years.  In the US and UK a school leader is much more responsible for a whole range of areas outside of just leading teaching and learning ranging from Health & Safety, marketing, public liability, safeguarding, legal, financial management and accounts and the list goes on.  As budgets in the public purse shrink further astute commercial skills are needed to look at how additional income is generated to support the core business of the school – students and their learning. This is also why it is crucial to be an outward facing school and use a range of partnerships and networks that bring benefit and value to the organisation.

The “educators heart” is something that is timeless and the best school leaders never lose sight of why they came into teaching and that thrill of the classroom introducing a new topic or idea and watching fires being lit, rather than the pails filled or the shape of the spoon being taught. The best times of the day and week are these moments especially if I am grappling with a complex issue around educational law or the budget. My Year 13 Critical Thinkers did exactly this for me on Tuesday as we held our weekly class and there was no better place to discuss the extraordinary developments happening in Westminster this week than with my A Level Politics classes. I think the point in the discussion about the skills of the modern school leader going forward in the 2020s became more heated when we talked about a school leader having an “intellectually curious soul”.  For the school founders and owners this seemed to be almost a luxury add on at best and at worst an irrelevant quirk more suitable in the time of Mr Chips or even Dumbledore. Naturally, anyone immersed in the IB philosophy would disagree and to love learning and ideas is the very essence of education.  The point was well made that we were all arguing that three aspects were needed in a “holy trinity” for the school leader and each on their own would not have the same level of success and effectiveness. One colleague summed this up best when they said this was about always wanting to learn and not dismissive of new ideas or even being satiated with what we already know.  I have to say, it has been a long time since I have heard any colleague disparagingly say to a struggling class or student, “well, I have my GCSES and A Levels”.  I am never sure how apocryphal this story is but I have always liked the idea that the future famous Welsh poet, Dylan Thomas, was skipping school in his hometown of Swansea and got caught by his Headteacher. “Where are you going Dylan?” the Head asked, to which Dylan replied “I am going home to write poetry”. To which the Head replied, “hurry up then before you get caught”. Dylan Thomas’s father of course was the Head of English at the school. My other similar story but converse is of the New York high school principal who told a very young John McEnroe not to miss school to play tennis because it would never amount to anything.  What do educators know anyhow?

What also connects this “holy trinity” together is the ego of the leader, or rather the lack of one. It’s been a while since headlines have shouted about “Super Heads” or “Hero Heads” and what is more and more apparent in modern times is that whilst there is no denying that the principal does play a decisive role in the leadership and culture of the school to ignore or not allow other leaders to also flourish and operate is very detrimental to the organisation. Lots of people can bring so much more to the table and the worst organisations, be it schools or private companies, flounder if they build their leadership model on the skills and the talents of one individual’s ego, no matter how good they have proven themselves.  It is not sustainable and it goes when they leave.  Without a constant flow of leadership talent and a systemic approach towards not only enabling actual real leadership, with real decision making ability and trust, but also developing the leadership capacity and succession planning, the organisation is only as good as the ego it is built on. School leadership in the 2020s will reflect increasingly this model of leadership rather than a thin veil of paying lip service to ideas like distributed leadership when the reality means control and power is in the arbitrary hands of one person.  Leadership in the 2020s will reflect the times we are in and what may have worked in the 1970s or even the early part of the Millennium, certainly won’t be the approach in the 2020s. In the UK we can already see this in the once sacred shibboleths of graded lesson observations, punitive quality assurance models, performance management linked to conduct and capability and a whole host of dumb practices that have led to so many good educators leaving the profession in droves. To go back to Dr Sadki’s idea of the school principal being akin to a mayor of a small town, this implies that the mayor is an elected servant of the people, listening and acting for the people with a wide range of stakeholders and communities to serve.  Not an authoritarian ruler leading in a capricious way.

In “The Pepper Effect”, US principal Sean Gaillard, makes the compelling case for creativity, collaboration, and innovation being at the centre of education going forward as well as communication and critical thinking making up his “4 x Cs”. Gaillard places great emphasis on his role as principal not only setting the right culture and vision people can aspire to in the school but how central developing leaders and the notion of the professional group working together collaboratively towards the common and shared vision is the core idea in this model. Wyedean School had its annual visit from the Challenge Partners Review team at the end of November and the report is available from this link: please click HERE.

Our membership of Challenge Partners is about being in a dynamic network of schools that is outward facing but also central to drive up standards in education and allow the development of leadership to flourish in the school. The educationalist, Tim Brighouse, famously wrote about the stages of leading a school and he said the 3-7 period is where a leader is established and really flourishes.  It is downhill after 7 years though.  Well, I thought about Brighouse a lot when I read the third annual report from Challenge Partners this week.  I hope this doesn’t read as my vanity but I was so proud to see what the review team had picked up and had observed the school culture and strategy here at Wyedean. Reading it I felt that the strategy and hard work we had all spent throwing out a previously toxic culture and replacing it with professionalism, trust, a positive school culture, a learning community, a rich curriculum, a caring environment and leadership everywhere had been established and embedded in Wyedean. This is what leaders should be achieving now and for the 2020s through the mind-set, right approaches and skills:

“The strong ethos for learning and the collective and collaborative culture that supports students and staff “the Wyedean Way” is palpable. Leaders are determined to make sure that each individual achieves highly and benefits fully from the many opportunities offered. Wyedean is a very strong community, where expectations are high, learning is for all and engagement is the norm. Students and staff feel strongly supported and are rightly extremely proud to be members of the Wyedean family”.

“Leadership is distributed widely and opportunities to develop leaders are seized upon”.

 “Leaders have a very good understanding of the school’s strengths and areas for improvement. They are highly reflective and use the individual and collective strengths of the team well to address priorities swiftly but thoughtfully”.

“The leadership of teaching and learning is high quality”.

“Middle leaders are strong, enthusiastic and confident leaders. They feel empowered to develop their own ideas and innovate and value highly the unstinting support and collaborative approach of the senior team”.

 Extracts from the Challenge Partners Review report on Wyedean School, Nov 2018

Finally, school leaders in the 2020s will need to keep at the front of their minds the need for balance, family, rest, retaining a sense of humour, a break from routines, perspective and a hinterland, especially when the inevitable pressure points bite in the academic year. As the old lags will tell you in the staffroom, this is a marathon not a sprint.  Modelling this to aspiring colleagues who will take over one day soon in leadership roles is crucial.  It is why I enjoyed seeing my own daughters in their nativity play this week and why other colleagues are doing the same as we get to the end of this very busy but rewarding term. I am hoping for holiday time in my cabin to read the new book on school leadership “Nuance” from my great hero, Michael Fullan, fingers crossed there for Christmas (hint hint family) alongside the great historian Doris Kearns Goodwin’s new book “What it takes to lead in turbulent times”. I wish everyone a Merry Christmas and best wishes for 2019. The 2020s will only be 12 months away when we return in the New Year and after this decade I think we are more than ready for the promise of the new one.






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