System Leadership and School to School Support

System Leadership and School to School Support

Professor David Woods, CBE, Chair of the London Leadership Strategy and one of our keynote speakers at the forthcoming TSC London conference ‘The future of education in London’, looks at system leadership and the importance of school-to-school support.

‘System leadership arises when political leaders and school leaders openly debate and agree on the moral purpose of education, that is, the kind of people that education creates for what kind of society, and then work in partnership to agree and to implement both the means by which such purposes can be realised in practice and the criteria by which success in such an endeavour is to be judged’

David Hargreaves

Put at its simplest, system leadership refers to the form of leadership that goes beyond the individual school to influence the education, achievement and well-being of children and young people more widely. In a local area or region the best schools and leaders extend their reach across other schools so that all schools improve. There is a system focus on collaborative partnerships, sharing expertise and identifying and disseminating high leverage best practice. System leaders realise that classroom, school and system impact on one another and seek to engage with this in a meaningful way. So given the right school improvement model in the area what does system leadership do? It can:

  • Empower the real leaders who can make change happen
  • Find time and create the space for innovation
  • Keep the work where it needs to be – close to the front line
  • Sustain a sense of shared endeavour and a climate for improvement
  • Influence an educational system at both a lateral and vertical level.

As its most mature system leadership will go beyond Headteachers and senior leaders and include other leaders and teachers in schools – going deeper and wider. We sometimes refer to this as ‘systemic leadership’ where a range of expert leaders and teachers in schools at different levels share a strong professional motivation to collaborate. In providing support and challenge to other schools they seek reciprocal benefits that lead to self-improvement through observation, evaluation, reflection, joint practice development as well as the dissemination of the most effective practice. Systemic leaders take professional responsibility for leading, co-ordinating and delivering sustainable school improvement.

One of the best examples of system leadership and school-to-school support is the work of Teaching schools and their Alliances. They provide the culture and structure that leaders and teachers need to effectively collaborate, reflect on and evaluate the impact of their practice and shared learning and determine what they can do to improve their professional practice. Collectively leaders and teachers hone their skills in an inquiry learning process including evaluating and diagnosing, prioritising and setting goals, developing, planning and implementing.

School-to-school support can take several forms. It can bring a powerful focus to bear on an aspect of a school’s practice that is unsatisfactory and this may just mean the effective deployment of specialist leaders of education to develop a shared understanding of quality and to accelerate the pace of professional learning and practice. One of the characteristics of the best teaching schools and alliances is the effective development of a cadre of specialist leaders of education and expert practitioners who can not only improve practice rapidly in under performing schools but also increase the repertoire of good leadership and teaching in every school and improve the learning experience of all students. Sometimes school-to-school support is mainly defined through leadership support for Headteachers, senior leaders and governors who face considerable challenges. It is often the case that Teaching schools and alliances will have several National Leaders of Education to call upon as well as National Leaders of Governance and this support is likely to be in the form of providing expert diagnosis and strategic advice and commissioning reviews as required.

All support in many forms will come together when a school in the alliance or elsewhere is deemed to require intensive support to improve. This will require the designation of a high performing, high capacity school to ‘moor alongside’ and act as the ‘tugboat’ for improvement and to carry out the following tasks often as a service level agreement:

  • An audit of need to critically analyse the issues
  • Help to construct an improvement plan
  • Devise bespoke solutions
  • Foster joint practice development
  • Support and challenge through firm, focused conversations – coaching, mentoring and modelling
  • Monitor progress against KPI milestones
  • Build capacity and secure sustainability

This will require a team of people with support from the Teaching School alliance as a whole. Evaluations over the years point to a ‘win-win’ bonus as the schools providing support sharpen their own leadership and school improvement methodology as well as the schools receiving support. This can lead to a ‘double lift’ in performance outcomes.

To make system leadership and school-to-school support work really well all school leaders need to be in the business of creating out-ward facing schools working with each other in a climate of mutual support and challenge. They should develop effective relationships with fellow professionals based upon trust and honesty, championing best practice and striving for equity and improved outcomes for all children and young people. System leaders should model innovative approaches to school improvement, leadership and governance based on excellent practice and well-evidenced research.

They should seek to inspire and influence others, within and beyond their own schools, so that the education system as a whole can be transformed.

 ‘The longest lever we have at our disposal is leadership……it is impossible to get a system perspective if we only stay at home. We need cross –connected leadership experiences in order to transform the system so that progressive cultures flourish’.

Michael Fullan

Professor David Woods, CBE, is Chair of the London Leadership Strategy.  He is a keynote speaker at TSC London’s conference ‘The future of education in London’ on Friday 7th July 2017, along with Geoff Barton, President, ASCL, Isabella Donnelly from Grebot Donnelly Associates and Stephen Munday, CBE, CEO, The Cam Academy Trust.