There is much research on what constitutes successful school leadership.[ii] However, there has been much less research on the nature of successful leadership of schools facing challenging circumstances[iii] with attention being drawn to this subject only a decade ago. In 2009, Ofsted published two key reports[iv] outlining characteristics of schools which were outstanding and excelled against the odds, in terms of their intake of pupils and location. The same year the then DCSF also published two phase reports[v] with a main focus on white pupils eligible for free school meals. There seems however, even much less written about leadership of multi-ethnic schools. Following Gillborn and Gipps’[vi] seminal research in 1996, which highlighted the under-performance of some minority ethnic pupils, Blair and Bourne’s research[vii] in 1998 highlighted the characteristics of outstanding multi-ethnic schools. Subsequent to this, the only other main research which focuses on successful multi-ethnic leadership was undertaken by Dimmock et al[viii] in 2004, followed by Walker et al,[ix] which used a case study approach of ‘good leaders’ of multi-ethnic schools, setting the challenges they face within an international context. Currently, with the focus on closing the gap and raising attainment in schools near or below floor targets, many of whom are schools facing challenging circumstances, HMCI Wilshaw has ordered a review of “Access & Achievement”[x]. The purpose of this review is to focus on the issues facing urban leadership. He has also engaged an expert panel to come up with new and radical solutions to address the issues facing deprived communities. After a year of deliberations, the expert panel is due to report back in May this year.
Based on this research and my own observations of working closely with these leaders who had a proven track record in closing the gaps, I decided to reflect on what I thought were the most compelling specific characteristics they shared and came up with this list, much of which resonates with the research outlined above.
1. Overarching commitment to fairness, equality and social justice.
This commitment drives the schools mission, values and practice in schools and is their ‘raison d’etre’ for leading schools in challenging circumstances. I have observed that that these leaders are confident and command respect from their school community, but at the same time have a sense of humility and modesty, with an eagerness of wanting to learn more about their often changing communities. They have high expectations of their staff, pupils and their communities and ensure that this is permeates across everything the school does.
2. Distributed leadership at all levels
The demands of working in a school facing challenging circumstances is immense and one of the key ingredients is making sure that all leaders in the school passionately share in the Head’s vision and commitment to fairness, equality and social justice. This team of leaders play a pivotal role in ensuring that the many difficult issues they come across on a daily basis are dealt with promptly and effectively, without distracting them from the smooth and efficient running of the school and their core focus of delivering high quality teaching and learning opportunities for their pupils.
3. Delivery of Quality First Teaching, with a high emphasis on literacy skills and the use of swift and effective interventions for those at risk of falling behind.
The leaders I am referring to relentlessly focus on the delivery of high quality first teaching by all their staff, from teachers to support staff, each with a key role to play in accelerating pupil’s progress and learning. They ensure that all staff are experts in teaching literacy, which is taught explicitly and consistently across the curriculum, with interventions carefully monitored for progress and impact. They create opportunities for their pupils and parents to engage in fun literacy activities, even when parents may be less confident in their own literacy skills or do not have the literacy skills in English. They are solution focused by using innovative strategies such as use of technology in the form of “Talking books” or using bilingual reading resources to overcome barriers.
Another key feature of these leaders is that they ensure that the curriculum offered to their pupil’s is reflective of their backgrounds and interests, including positive portrayals of diversity. This demonstrates to pupils and their parents that they are respected and their heritage is valued. A rich variety of enrichment activities are used as a way of enhancing the learning experiences of pupils and are carefully planned at key points in the delivery of the curriculum to actively support learning in a practical, fun and meaningful way. Often when affordability is an issue they use school funds to either subsidise or fully pay for the costs.
4. Use effective and regular tracking systems which are not only disaggregated by different groups (i.e. gender, socio-economic status, ethnicity, language background and special educational needs) but also look at how structural inequalities can come together and impact on pupil outcomes.
They use their tracking data at regular intervals to monitor pupil progress and ensure that both quality first teaching and interventions are delivering faster than average rates of progress, which they know is essential for their pupil’s to get to age related expectations, as many of their pupil’s start at lower levels of attainment on entry. They use this tracking information to deliver bespoke and personalised learning suitable for meeting the needs of either groups of pupils or individual pupils. They expect their pupils to reach at least age related national expectations, irrespective of their starting points and although they are aware of both LA and national performance of particular groups of pupils, they continue to set expectations for them to reach the national benchmark rather than that of their peers, as they know this will perpetuate lower standards.
5. They know each and every child, their background and circumstances.
They use this knowledge to ensure that the holistic needs of the child are met but without compromising on the high expectations they have of them. They show “tough kindness with empathy” rather than expecting less of them because of their particular circumstances. On many an occasion, whilst on a learning walks, with these outstanding leaders they are vigilant and aware of their pupils’ needs and interactions. They also make it their business to know more about the personal circumstances of their pupils as do all Headteachers. However, in addition they make it their business to be knowledgeable of the extra learning their pupil's undertake at weekends and after school, including competency in other languages the pupil's may be learning or speak within the community and at home, as they can see the benefits of bilingualism as a tool for learning.
6. Proactive engagement with the community
They recognise the important role that parents and carers play in the lives of their children, especially since they know that schools only have pupils for 15% of the time. They, therefore proactively look at ways in which the remaining 85% of the time their pupils are with their parents can be maximised. They do this enabling their school to become a hub of the community, providing extended services in partnership with other key services so that wrap around care is available when needed. They also enable successful partnerships to be forged between their school and local complementary schools, who provide additional study support in language, religious or academic study. They work in synergy to meet the holistic needs of the same groups of children, with a collective emphasis on high attainment.
7. They nurture and develop their own staff and governors and try to ensure that they are representative of the community their school serves.
These leaders understand that the school is at the heart of their local community and that pupils need to see positive role models from the community in its staff and governing body. They therefore, nurture and develop staff and governors by providing high quality professional development opportunities and coaching. This also assists in alleviating some of the difficulties they can face in recruiting and retaining staff and governors. In many cases, I have seen these schools develop strong partnerships with local universities and colleges who place trainee teachers in their schools. The advantages are that the school is able to train these teachers in both the generic and specific skills and competencies needed for teaching in urban schools, thereby having a ready pool of potential teachers to recruit from. They also benefit from having highly qualified additional staff in their school which means they can provide more focused quality teaching to their pupils, at minimal cost.
These observations based on my own working closely with these leaders are closely borne out by the research. However, the key issues is not the identification of these key characteristics but the translation of these into practice. We now have, more than ever before much evidence based research to guide us in what works the best. Take for example the latest Education Endowment Foundation, Teaching and Learning Toolkit Research which has shown that providing effective feedback is the single most powerful way of improving attainment. However, less than 3% of teachers in surveyed identified this as a top spending priority for the Pupil Premium. This example illustrates the problem. Therefore, the issue is even though we know the effective characteristics of outstanding leaders who close the gaps in their schools, how do we ensure more schools in similar circumstances have leaders with these specific outstanding characteristics? Bearing in mind the growing emphasis on school to support and system leadership to drive up standards across localities, it is difficult not to share some of the concerns highlighted by HMCI Wilshaw when giving evidence to a cross –party commons committee earlier this week. He stated “The great challenge for the future is to identify system-wide leaders for our poorest areas because at the moment we have got more good head teachers serving quite affluent communities who are national leaders of education who are asked to go into disadvantages communities to support them. I am not sure they have the necessary skills to do that. Some will, some won’t.”
I believe that the many of the leaders I have identified above, lead ‘outstanding’ schools according to Ofsted criteria. However, I have also come across many exceptional leaders, who will find it difficult to get this grading for their school in the current framework, even though the progress the pupils make is higher than the national average. Together, these leaders hold the key to raising standards in similar schools, where many of the systemic problems lie. Recognising the specialist and distinct competencies and expertise they have should form the cornerstone of any strategy in driving forward standards for closing the gaps and raising standards for all.
[i] i.e. those schools which face multiple challenges in terms of their location (inner city and/or in areas of high social deprivation); student mix (higher percentages of pupils eligible for free school meals, mobility, minority ethnic pupils, new arrivals with English as an additional language needs); facing staffing difficulties in terms of recruitment and retention of key staff; parental attitudes and sometimes histories of the schools themselves with low records of attainment and achievement and therefore under pressure from either being in an Ofsted categories or likelihood of falling into one as a result of being below or near the floor targets.
[ii] Alma Harris’s et al’s “10 strong claims about successful leadership”, which built on their earlier work “7 Strong claims about successful school leadership (2006).
[iii] Alma Harris & Chris Chapman “ Leading for improvement in challenging circumstances”, 2003.
[iv] Ofsted “12 outstanding schools: excelling against the odds” published in 2009, with one for primary and the other for secondary, highlighted the characteristics of schools and leaders that may a significant difference.
[v] “Extra Mile: Achieving Success with pupils from deprived communities”.
[vi] “ Recent research into the achievements of ethnic minority pupils”.
[vii] “Making a difference: teaching and learning in successful multi-ethnic schools”.
[viii] “The leadership of multi-ethnic schools: What we know and don’t know about values driven leadership”.
[ix] “Priorities, strategies and challenges: Proactive leadership in multi-ethnic schools”, NCSL.
[x] This new report follows on from two earlier ones, with the same name undertaken by Ofsted, first in 1993 and then a decade later in 2003.