The Awkward Squad

Sir Michael Wilshaw describes the need for 'the awkward squad' in school leadership

Sir Michael Wilshaw’s address to the TES leadership conference was published, placing school leadership firmly in the spotlight.  Sir Michael was lamenting a “pretty ordinary education system” arguing for more maverick teachers and leaders who dare to be different: “We need more extraordinary people.  We need our awkward squad”.

There is a danger that “the awkward squad” places too much emphasis on the cult of personality leading schools and too much dependency on the individual for sustainable leadership.  There is also an argument that Sir Michael’s own Ofsted have suppressed the maverick spirit in schools; how many of us dare to be different!?  There is also no mistaking the fact that what separates good from great schools is leadership which pays lip service to mandates; focusing solely on what’s right for the context of the school. These are schools that don’t wait for legislation to start a revolution. They are creative with resources, entrepreneurial in spirit and relentless in their pursuit of excellence.

Nor should we underplay the damaging impact of high stakes accountability paired with over prescriptive, 90s conceived National Strategies.  Many of our current leaders were children of the NatStrats; drilled, to the 60th minute of the literacy hour clock, in hard edged monitoring, pre-written lesson plans and plastic lunch boxes full of dull, colourless staff meetings about the grad-grind of reading schemes.

We are, thankfully, entering an era of increased autonomy, but the stakes are still just as high.  Jon Coles describes these challenges as “shifting tectonic plates”; a moving structural edifice.  The metaphor is appropriate.  Over the next 5 years, we face waves capable of triggering a tsunami.

These include:

  • 115,000 pupils entering the London school system by 2020 but a decrease of 150,000 university graduates (potential teachers).
  • The first period of growth since 1970s in both primary and secondary pupil numbers.
  • The declining role and power of local authorities
  • The significant funding reductions and a decline in government funded school collaboration programmes
  • Multiple curriculum and assessment changes and increased standards to meet


Similarly, Steve Munby warns against the dangers of the 3 As:

  • Increased Austerity
  • Increased Accountability
  • Increased Autonomy (isolation)


Both make the same point.  High quality school to school collaboration and an increased emphasis on system leadership of learning is needed now more than ever.  This is what Munby describes as ‘learning centred leadership’.


So What Do We Do?

Lessons from the Urban Education Report (a study of 5 international urban education success stories), places the following right at the heart of a successful education system:

  • Development of highly effective leadership characteristics (including commitment, passion and optimism).
  • Systematised school collaboration and school partnerships.
  • Making teaching the career of choice, including “detoxifying” the profession.


But this is easier said than done. There are a plethora of teacher / leadership development programmes out there failing to deliver on a large scale.  In London, for example, the Future Leaders programme, despite over 100 new participants each year, has only contributed 42 headteachers in the past 7 years!  Similarly, the Teach First drop-out rate is nothing short of a disaster.

What is working, however, and quite brilliantly, is the upward convergence facilitated by the increase in school partnerships and federations between schools (this takes us back to Sir Michael Wilshaw’s speech). Suddenly, collaboration is no longer cosy; formalised partnerships afford greater flexibility of staffing, including secondments or cross school roles. Aspirant leaders are both supported and challenged in equal measure, given unique opportunities to really make a difference on the job. George Berwick describes this as theory of action:

“The way to ensure that we improve the performance of all our pupils, especially the most disadvantaged is to facilitate effective collaboration of schools through a local and a national network. The members of the network challenge and support each other to improve their performance by identifying and sharing best practice and challenging the best to improve further – system wide effective knowledge management.

In our own Greenwich context, almost by accident, this is exactly what we have done through our Inspire Partnership collaboration. Of the existing 65 LA maintained primary schools, 10 headteachers have been ‘grown’ into positions through direct coaching; NPQH placements or being given opportunities to step up. This development of our leadership pipeline is matched in other Greenwich partnerships and federations.

Does this qualify us for the “Awkward Squad”?  I’m not sure.  Are we prepared to take calculated risks in order to guard against Tsunamis?  Absolutely!  We are leading and learning in the most exciting times.  We have a unique opportunity to develop learning centred leadership which ensures the very best teaching enables all children to thrive; redefining professional development along the way, raising expectations amongst the profession.

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