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A New Blueprint for Leadership Training

Sir Dan Moynihan, CEO of the Harris Federation, explains how they are training the next generation of headteachers.

All of us who have been heads remember our first few terms in post. In particular the constant desire to keep every plate spinning, the fear and excitement of the unknown, the lessons learnt that appeared so obvious in hindsight. And the desire to get everything right, all the time; even when that was out of our hands.

So, in the midst of a head teacher recruitment crisis, the question of how – once and for all – we provide high quality leadership training, remains pertinent for all of us in this sector.

At the Harris Federation, 80% of the Principals at our secondary academies have been developed internally as have a growing proportion of our primary leaders. We are proud of having been able to give first headships to colleagues who have seized the opportunity that this represents and made the most of it.

Being a head teacher is an intensely practical job and, if our nation is to have any hope of resolving the current recruitment
crisis, we need to give aspiring leaders the training to match. But historically, training
has been far too remote from the realities of what the job requires.

Gritty Issues

When we train our aspiring leaders at Harris, we focus on the gritty issues they will need to grapple with once they become head teachers. Over the years, we have seen what new heads struggle with the most and we make sure that incoming leaders are prepared for these issues. Questions like, how do you use data to actually improve your school, as
opposed to just accumulating it? How do you manage budget retrenchment whilst preserving your curriculum offer? How do you forecast five years ahead to create a sustainable budget for your school? And how to you make sure your aspirations are high enough for your own school?

Active Situation

With each of these questions, it is very difficult to imagine how the path to discovery solely lies in the lecture halls or textbooks traditionally associated with the NPQH. And I say that as someone who has held the qualification for the past twenty years. There is of course a place for taught learning. But ask any experienced head what has been most helpful and they will tell you that it’s the reality of an active situation rather than a textbook or course notes.

Staff demand for our course, which lasts two years for Assistant Principals and a year for Vice Principals, is high. And the feedback from those who have already done the course is overwhelming. I am delighted that, this year, we have around 40 colleagues training for headship.

Although we also offer the NPQH, colleagues are choosing the Harris course because they know that it will provide them with the stretch and contextualised challenge they need to become confident and effective leaders. They know it will be delivered by frontline, practicing leaders with the credibility of having run successful schools. And they know we have the flexibility to tailor the training for each individual who participates.

Our training begins with a residential weekend where participants are given the opportunity to really think about what they aspire to achieve as head teachers and to reflect on what their vision is. Alongside input from a number of experienced Principals from within the Harris Federation, we bring in psychometric assessors who provide insight for participants on where their particular challenges lie.

Over the course of the weekend, we develop a shared understanding with participants of their aims and aspirations but also their strengths and weaknesses. This is the first stage in their training and a core element of the programme as a whole because it is what we base all of their future training on.

But learning the tools of the trade cannot be purely theoretical. After that initial weekend, a large part of the training involves getting participants out of the comfort zone of their own school and into a variety of other schools.

We have more than 40 schools in our federation and teaching and learning in each of these is reviewed by an internal team of people on an annual basis. Each aspirant head teacher is given a place on a review team. We deliberately place them in a school that is relevant to the issues they say they find most challenging or interesting. Over the course of the review, they see first-hand how another school works and perates and assess the efficacy of this with me and other senior colleagues.

This process is, in itself, a learning curve for everyone who takes part. And, at the end of the review, they are asked to identify an issue that interests them and solve it. An example of this might be to look at how the school can act to close the gap between Pupil Premium children and the others in their cohort.

Expert Witness Sessions

Another example of the kind of practical training participants get is their attendance at ‘expert witness sessions’ run by existing Principals on key issues facing leaders. The types of issues covered might range from student leadership to managing challenging staff. These sessions are followed up with a task for participants to ensure they have the opportunity to implement what they have learned.

Whenever there is a written assessment, it is always topical and current. Recent essays I have marked include analysis of strategies to overcome disadvantage, whether gaps in attainment can and should be removed, and lessons learned from American Charter Schools.

Every head teacher today also realises just how important it is to understand the landscape of public policy. We always incorporate this into the course and are pleased that this year’s cohort will be meeting Sir David Carter so they can get a deeper understanding of the role of the Schools Commissioner.

It has taken us three years to develop our model for training, but we are delighted with the outcome. When they take on their first school, our leaders are supported for the first couple of years by an Executive Principal – but some of our most effective and innovative leaders have come through this system and are now training others to do the same.

Financially, the course has real benefits too because it costs less than the NPQH to deliver. It requires Principals to free up members of their senior team to get out and about within the Federation to do their training, but given the current recruitment crisis this is an inconvenience worth bearing.

It’s in all of our interests that the next generation of head teachers have the greatest opportunity to succeed in post. Training them to tackle the realities of headship in advance of this promotion and supporting them throughout their first years in post provides the ideal way to do so.

Surviving your first few years as a head requires courage, perseverance and talent. But it also requires preparation, so the very least we can do is ensure that any one taking up post has been given the opportunity to understand the realities and tactics for succeeding in the role.

Academy magazine | Autumn 2016