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Partnerships for progress: the Getting Ahead London approach to developing school leaders

It’s mid-afternoon on a freezing November afternoon in Friends Meeting Place near Euston station. A group of 30 or so people are engaged in a passionate discussion.

  • ‘What’s really important is that we challenge the notion that headship is a lonely and isolated role — otherwise, why would we expect that teachers will want to do it?’

  • ‘Right! Actually, the chance to really understand your own core values and principles, and use them to work with a team and shape a vision for a school, that’s pretty stimulating!’

This is a meeting of the Leadership Coaches for a programme called Getting Ahead London. The programme is the brainchild of the Greater London Authority (GLA), and comes directly from research carried out by Anna Trethewey, James Kempton and Challenge Partners, run by Professor Sir George Berwick CBE, who is known to many for his role in London Challenge.

A London leadership challenge

The research identified a major challenge to having sufficient leaders in London — it found that 3 out of 5 leaders were considering leaving the profession within three years, over half of heads were over 50, and re-advertising rates for headship were even higher in London than in the rest of the country. The report also highlighted that an additional 165,000 additional school places will be needed by 2025 meaning that many more leaders need to be grown.

To make the task more difficult the research also found that senior leaders were deterred by challenges of the role, inexperienced recruitment by governing bodies, and a lack of culture of development and feedback in school. It also identified a lack of support to retain existing heads in post.

The research pointed out that heads are not representative of population — less likely to be black, Asian, minority ethnic, or female.

To address this, the research recommended a programme to grow a ‘talent pool’ of future London headteachers, and connect this pool to schools needing new heads. The GLA picked up the gauntlet and decided to commission this as a pilot on behalf of the London Education Officers’ Group. [The LEOG brings together the London Boroughs, the Greater London Authority, Regional Schools’ Commissioners and the Teaching Schools in London].

Step forward, the GLA

School leadership development might seem to be unusual territory for the Greater London Authority, which does not have a formal role for school level education. Caroline Boswell, Education Director for the GLA, explains: ‘We know that a strong school age education system is at the core of everything else we do regarding growing skills, employment, social equity and wealth in London. The GLA may not have statutory duties for education, but it’s an area we take very seriously. People outside London may think we have cracked it — but although it’s true that education has transformed over the last 15 years, there are many challenges; and if we don’t keep innovating and investing, we’ll go backwards.’

One of the issues identified was that responsibility for education can feel quite fragmented, across Local Authorities, Multi-Academy Trusts, individual schools and their governing bodies, and a plethora of different leadership programmes on offer through different routes. ‘We recognise that all these organisations have their own focus, and we wanted to convene something that could help us all to work together.’

Partnerships with a purpose

I personally became involved while I was the Education Leader at PwC, the global consultancy, when the GLA put out a request for support for the development and implementation of the pilot. I got in touch with George Berwick, and we agreed that putting the business skills of PwC together with the education expertise of CP could be an interesting approach.

Indeed, at the heart of the programme is the chance for coaches, as well as participants, to access learning and development support from the best practice tool kits of PwC as well as educationalists.

The coaches themselves are selected through a competitive process and they are all NLEs/LLEs or equivalent. A key principle is that the programme is developmental for the coaches as well as the participants. For example, coaches accessed elements of PwC’s learning and development programme usually reserved for PwC’s own Partners and Directors, and they also had the opportunity to engage with PwC senior leaders and share perspectives on different approaches to talent management and leadership development.

The coaches provide face to face coaching to participants, and work with coaching ‘triads’, in which groups of three participants work together, to challenge, support and enquire with each other. Coaches also provide a ‘shadowing’ experience in their own schools for each participant.

Building motivation, self-awareness, skills and networks

The programme helps participants identify their areas for development, which may be different from those that they self-identify. In fact, the programme helps participants identify and develop themselves across five main areas:

  • Motivation and readiness — participants will be motivated to take the next step on their journey towards headship or will have made a positive decision that headship is not for them.

  • Awareness — participants will be aware of their skills, motivations and capabilities and development needs and will have a clear plan to address their gaps and be able to navigate the pathway towards headship.

  • Knowledge — participants will have the knowledge they need to succeed in a headship position, or be on the path to acquiring this.

  • Skills — participants will have the skills they need to succeed in a headship position, or be on the path towards acquiring these.

  • Networks — participants will have built a network of leaders across London to support their ongoing development.

Confidence emerges as a particular issue for many of the female participants. Dame Sue John, Executive Director at Challenge Partners explains, ‘Females feel they have to be perfect in every aspect of the role, totally on top of it all. But actually, we are all always learning and developing, none of us should feel we are the complete package. An additional barrier for some women is the feeling that governors are looking for an archetypal alpha-male headteacher, and so they won’t fit the role.’ For that reason, part of building confidence is the opportunity for participants to shadow their coach in the coach’s school, in order to break down myths about leadership.

This resonates with barriers for some Black Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) aspirant leaders. As Karen Giles, a coach on the programme puts it, ‘we sometimes over-complicate the issues and solutions to improving diversity. There are people out there who want to be leaders, and have the potential, but they sometimes need a tap on the shoulder from someone to suggest they are ready, and they need executive coaching and job shadowing opportunities. Nor is it about quotas — we need great leaders, full stop.’

Exposure to business approaches is also invaluable. Participants and coaches have been able to experience the PwC approach to learning and development, including sessions using Myers Briggs behavioural diagnosis, and an influencing skills session introducing the concepts of Bridging, Persuasion, Assertion and Attraction as tools that business people might use to achieve their objectives. Negotiation is an increasingly important part of school leadership — whether that is with external partners and suppliers, with other schools, or within the school with teams, students or parents. Coaches have also been shown the latest business approaches to talent development and how it might be used in schools.

The role of the GLA goes well beyond funder and convenor. The GLA’s role is to immerse participants in the broader educational, business and civic fabric of London. This has included attendance at the London education fair to understand about London Ambitions, the London Curriculum, and the London Gold Club. The GLA has helped participants to meet local businesses to understand more about what those businesses are looking for regarding education/ employer links and employee skills.

As Arwel Jones, coach and headteacher, put it, ‘the combination of input from business, educationalists and the Greater London Authority makes for a very interesting mix. Some of the approaches to leadership coaching in business just wouldn’t work for me in my school, but other ideas about coaching and mentoring relationships are really stimulating and make you think differently about how to develop people.’

One issue identified in the research was the confusing array of different leadership development programmes in London. Getting Ahead London is creating an on-line catalogue of the different programmes so that participants — with support from their coaches — can identify the programmes that can help them, and how to generate support for the participants to access it. Karen explains ‘if I consider just the local situation, we have Brent Schools Partnership which is working through the Headteachers to coordinate provision, universities, Ambition School Leaders, Getting Ahead London, DfE’s mentoring schemes, Challenge Partners, and the London Leadership Strategy. These are all great offers, but people need help to navigate them and access them. Ideally they need a way to access them independently, and not always through their headteacher. Some people will find this controversial, but heads can be constrained in terms of available time, funding, or in some cases, support for a particular individual. If we can identify provision that is out of school hours, for example, then it is less dependent on their school’s permission.’

Promising signs

The programme has only been running for the first term, and each participant will receive a full year of support. The pilot is being independently evaluated. It is far too early to claim success. However, there are some promising signs.

Firstly, the participant pool is quite diverse. Of the 60 participants, they are split quite evenly across Primary and Secondary phases. They are a mix of Assistant and Deputy Heads, and a few are already Acting Heads. A third have the minimum required two years of SLT experience, but a further third have over 6 years SLT experience. Only 10 of the 60 already have NPQH. 30% are male (compared to around 27% of all London teachers).

25% are non-white. Although this is still some way from the 40% BME teachers in Inner London and 34% in Outer London, it is much closer to representing the teaching population than London’s current headship profile.

There are already some positive signs of early impact, in terms of skills, behaviours and confidence. Many applicants comment that the mixture of triad discussions, coaching, and shadowing, has made them realise that other aspirant headteachers share similar concerns. ‘It has emphasised that it’s ok for me to reveal my humanity and be both accessible and real.’ [participant comment].

It has also helped participants consider how to remain authentic to their core values, but also be flexible in their leadership style depending on context. ‘I adopted a particular style in the schools where I have led — they have been in Special Measures. With the help of my mentor I have now been focusing on the style of leadership required in a school that has gone on a journey and is now good. I now think that a preferable style is one of collaboration — particularly on developing teaching and learning, and using middle leaders more effectively.’ [participant comment]

A key aspect of the programme design is the active involvement of sponsors and supporters around the participants. This starts with ‘360 degree’ assessments from the participants headteacher and/ or other senior people who know them. The aim in future is to utilise this wider pool to help move beyond development of participants, to addressing the wider context for London Leaders.

Karen Giles explains ‘a particular barrier for many women is how to fit career progress alongside having a family. This should not be a binary choice, one or the other. This means not only helping women to build the confidence, experience and networks to be ready, but to work with system leaders — by which I mean governors, heads, executive heads, MAT CEOs — to make sure that role design is as open to different patterns of work-life balance as it can be. For example, job-share headships’.

This wider pool of support is important not only for diversity, but for keeping a strategic moral purpose at the heart of developing leaders. Karen goes on to say ‘this is not about passive networking, but about active sponsorship, showing generosity of spirit to collaborate and not compete over talent development, in the best interests of our students.’

Beyond London

I do believe there are some important possibilities from this programme that could be relevant to other parts of the country:

  • engaging experienced serving school leaders to help grow future leaders (rather than retired coaches) means that advice and support is grounded in real and topical issues

  • providing something in it for the coaches, by way of professional learning and growth, and also emphasising the moral purpose of growing leaders, moves the approach away from a transactional one where experienced leaders are hired as coaches, into a more sustainable relationship. Therefore, coaches receive a stipend for their own development rather than a fee

  • aspirant leaders will have certain gaps — both known and unknown — and one of those gaps is often networks. Supporting their development within the context of social, civic, business and charitable networks will make them stronger leaders in future. Tapping into the distinctive aspects of an area can give this particular purpose

  • There are Local Enterprise Partnerships everywhere now, and whilst they may not all have the scale of the Greater London Authority, they all have the ability to convene business and education.

Other parts of the country are already showing interest in the programme, and it would be great to see local approaches to this issue. Getting Ahead London may have a local focus, but the issue is a national one. A recent report by Teach First, Future Leaders and Teaching Leaders found that by 2022 England could be in need of up to 19,000 school leaders .

We do need some national coherence around this — for example, I would welcome the Foundation for Leadership in Education taking a role in quality assurance of such local schemes. The National LEP network, the Professional Associations, Ambition School Leadership, the National Teaching Schools Council, DfE and the National College for Teaching and Leadership will all have roles to play in promotion and support of such programmes.

But we know that the future of a school-led, self-improving system must be that it is neither driven purely top-down, from national bodies, nor purely bottom up through local innovation and discovery. It will be led from the middle, and Getting Ahead London is just one example of a practical approach to doing that.

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