A Bird’s Eye View- Part 2

It is more than a year since I wrote a blog on this theme explaining how my experience working with schools gives strong reasons for optimism. Since then my view has not changed. I have continued to be privileged to work with a growing number of schools in very different areas and contexts.


As previously I have continued to meet utterly committed and conscientious professionals who are working at and often beyond full capacity. They have risen to the challenges of qualifications reform and new requirements such as the careers strategy proactively and positively in spite of immense constraints regarding finance and recruitment/retention. I see deeply impressive practice and excellent, confident leadership driven by a strong vision which values, trusts and supports staff. I am seeing schools which were in a deep in special measures transformed into calm and purposeful places of learning where motivated and engaged students and teachers work in partnership in a climate of mutual respect.

Another development that has moved apace has been the way people in schools have created or taken advantage of opportunities to discuss professional issues such as pedagogy, assessment and the curriculum in general. Activities such as ‘Teachmeets’, organised discussions on social media, research projects and the sharing of learned articles, blogs etc. have all been beneficial. The most successful schools I see (and there are many) are characterised by a reflective ethos in which CPD is at the heart with bespoke opportunities for everyone who works in them to develop. People are allowed to experiment with ideas, share successful and developing practice, make mistakes and learn from them. Staff visit each others’ lessons not as a form of inspection but as an integral part of that collective endeavour.

Of course it would be misleading to ignore the well-known challenges that exist at present. Tragically for some schools, their students and staff these are insurmountable. Teachers and schools leaders need their representatives to continue to campaign vigorously about those matters.

However, there is another set of challenges which our leadership can and needs to control with courage and determination. I fully understand how hard this is but here are ten provocations:

1. For too long the politics of education in England and its high stakes accountability system has forced many school leaders to react rather than lead. Thankfully many school leaders are taking advantage of the policy vacuum caused by Brexit to assert what matters for their students. They have had enough opportunities to see the negative impact of many recent policies and know what it needed and are confidently asserting their leadership.

2. The best schools are characterised by a clear vision and values which reflects the considered view of their communities of the kind of education they wish to provide. It is their vision, not Ofsted’s, not the serving government’s. ensuring hared ownership of that vision is the most important task of leaders.

3. Social media are powerful tools and valuable forms of access to all kinds of useful information but currently this power is being undermined by the following

  • Contributors who aggressively promote their own opinions and dismiss others rather than engaging in respectful, professional discussion
  • Polarised viewpoints such as progressives versus traditionalists, knowledge versus skills that oversimplify professional matters.
  • Policymakers and some parts of the media who pay undue attention to unrepresentative minorities with the loudest voices.

The best leaders and teachers therefore use these media critically and carefully and ignore the ‘noise’.

4. There are no simple solutions. Recent discussions about behaviour for example are deeply unhelpful. There are many different ways of achieving good behaviour and there is no one right way of achieving it in every context. As a profession we need to stand up to this kind of nonsense.

5. Ofsted is a regulator , not a school improvement organisation. School leaders should do things because they are right for their students, not because of second guessing what Ofsted might want. Many inspections are managed and led well in a professional manner. There are however too many cases where this is not the case and school leaders must not hesitate to complain when this happens. Ofsted say they are listening. We must hold them to it.

6. The curriculum is far more than a list of subjects or qualifications. Setting out a vision for it is at the heart of school leadership. In the best schools every member of staff should be able to articulate that vision and its implementation.

7. The choice of qualifications has been driven by performance tables and government preferences. While the stakes are so high this cannot be ignored but an inflexible adherence to these and nothing else is not the basis for an appropriate curriculum in many schools. Leaders need to have the courage and confidence to offer more than that diet.

8. The best CPD is not about expensive courses, it is about reflective practice, research and learning from others by sharing ideas. At the time of writing several profit-making companies are offering snake oil type solutions to preparing for the new Ofsted framework. They are a waste of money.

9. To use the well-worn adage, data asks questions. It does not provide answers. Its value is first and foremost to the school not external bodies and certainly not in a raw, uncontextualized state. Data is not just about numbers either. The best schools use qualitative as well as quantitative evidence in their self evaluation.   If used selectively and owned by the whole team it is immensely valuable.

10. Structures are not the answer to improving our education system. I see highly successful academies, free schools, maintained schools etc. I also see ones of all of these kind that are less successful.  As the title of this website says; Leadership Matters!

Note: Many of these matters are developed in detail in Brian Lightman’s book ‘Lessons Learned – a life in education’.

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