‘Leading schools in this country has never been so complex’

‘No other education system in Europe gives school leaders so much autonomy: over the curriculum, recruitment and managing a school’s finances’

Ed Vainker

A friend of mine went, five years ago, to the National College for School Leadership in Nottingham, for a residential course to prepare him to become a headteacher. He had twice narrowly missed top jobs and thought the course would help make him third time lucky. Opened by Tony Blair in 2002, the college is a striking £28m building with hundreds of little fountains, designed by Sir Michael Hopkins. It is a relic of another era—and not in an altogether good way. My friend expected to develop his expertise around what has become an increasingly complex role. He thought he would be challenged on his vision for curriculum design and his strategy for improving teaching. He was expecting technical training on school finance and the law around admissions. What he got on the first afternoon was being thrust into a pitch black room in silence for two hours and then invited to reflect on what he “learnt about himself”. He spent time reflecting on his “leadership colour” and listening to an explorer reflect on what Antarctic expeditions had taught him about leadership. He got his first headship shortly after but certainly never attributed it to that week in Nottingham.

I aspire to different preparation. My experience of setting up and running an all-through school in Feltham, which has quickly built an excellent reputation, has given me some insight into the knowledge and expertise required. I hope to support others embarking on that journey to start with everything they need.

Leading schools in this country has never been so complex. No other education system in Europe gives school leaders so much autonomy: over the curriculum, recruitment and managing a school’s finances. The move to academisation has increased the accountability for headteachers around the results that pupils achieve, how funds are spent and how effectively schools discharge myriad duties: safeguarding, preventing radicalisation and promoting British values to name a few.

In 2012 a fellow teacher, Rebecca Cramer; a social entrepreneur, Jon McGoh; and I applied to the Department for Education to open what became Reach Academy Feltham. We submitted a 400-page application (the West London Free School’s application a year earlier was 19 pages) and were thrilled to be approved to open. Our school educates children aged two to 19. We were judged outstanding in 2014 and achieved the 16th-best GCSE results in the country in 2017, while educating a vulnerable cohort including significant numbers of children in care and with special educational needs. In 2018 we also set up the Reach Children’s Hub, offering cradle-to-career support for the whole community in Feltham.

We are part of a wider movement of new schools. Many of the most successful schools and leaders have set up multi-academy trusts and are often now responsible for five, 10 or even 40 schools. We are driven by a commitment to a community, appetite for responsibility and entrepreneurialism. We want to help instil these same qualities in the next generation of school heads.

Over the next five years we will be looking for leaders with entrepreneurial drive and a track record of great results to head these schools. We won’t be leaving them in the dark for hours, but we will be borrowing from the work of Tom Rees at the Ambition Institute, a new graduate school for heads and other education leaders. One goal is strengthening specific expertise. Great headteachers have a strong grasp of the curriculum and pedagogy. They need to be able to develop these skills in the teachers they lead. They need to understand other facets of education, including finance and risk management, human resources and managing staff performance, safeguarding and health and safety. We will be supporting our leaders with a set of tools and technical knowledge that sets them up to make good decisions. They must also understand the context, particularly the communities, in which their schools operate.

We intend to work with leaders with a connection to communities across the country to apply to open new schools or to prepare to lead existing ones. Through the Reach School Leadership Fellowship prospective headteachers will spend a year working alongside us in Feltham during which they will shadow experienced teachers, undergo training, do residencies at transformational schools and apply what they have learnt in schools in need of support. All of these experiences are designed to give the new leaders experience of addressing the persistent problems of school leadership—securing excellent pupil behaviour, curriculum organisation, staff development, efficient organisation and resource

Our school has no fountains and has won no design awards. But we do have a commitment to pursuing excellence and an appetite to share with the urgently needed school leaders of tomorrow both what has worked—and the mistakes we have made along the way.

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