The perils of system leadership: why good schools need to be seen as good enough …

tes headlineI sympathise with the head whose own school rating from Ofsted slips from outstanding to good leadership and management while he or she is busy looking the other way.  (TES 27th March 2015) But why should anyone be surprised?  Should Ofsted fudge its less than outstanding judgement, in consideration of the fact that a headteacher absent from his or her own school is supporting the system?    Isn’t that rather missing the point?   Ofsted are required to make judgements concerning the school they inspect; they are not focusing on the system or (ideally) the performance of an individual school leader.  There is a difference between understanding and excusing. If the quality of leadership and management falls while leaders are sharing their expertise elsewhere, Ofsted does everyone a disservice if they pretend that school leadership remains unaffected by their absence.  There is a limit to the number of headteachers of outstanding schools: spread them too thinly, stretch them too far,  and the system suffers; so do they.

When school-to-school was first mooted, I wondered whether it would turn out to be a system-wide version of musical chairs: all the ‘system leaders’ leave a gap in their own school while they’re busy supporting someone else’s. Their own school benefits by giving those within it the opportunity to broaden their experience.  That’s fine until the music stops, revealing that the leadership of learning and teaching in the system leader’s own school has fallen as a result of his (usually) or her absence.

I remain to be convinced that the notion of ‘system leadership’ takes account of systems theory: that there is not one system, but many, and that the moment you move one player in the system, every other player is affected. As individuals we are affected by, and affect, every system we are part of. Each school is affected by what’s going on in its own community and what’s going on in the wider system. The hero head who rides into a failing school on a white charger and single-handedly turns round a failing school was discredited as a model years ago, thank goodness. It’s now seen as more complex than that, and support is provided at different levels. But there has to be excess capacity in the strong school for it to remain unaffected by the absence of the strongest members of staff. Excess capacity is rare.

System leadership demands that schools accept a responsibility for all children in the community, not just those who attend an individual school. Why do school leaders who are invited to support a struggling school accept such a commission – on behalf of themselves and their schools? In many cases it’s because they can see what needs to be done and they have a passionate conviction that every child deserves the best possible education. They are feted as ‘system leaders’ – saviours of the country’s education system. It must be pretty hard to resist the draw of being seen as the one person who can ‘make a difference’ to the life chances of other children in their community. Stephen Covey tells us that a priority of leadership is to keep the main thing the main thing. Headteachers (and politicians) need to decide what that is: is it to maintain their own standing as a school leader, to maintain the standards in their own school, or to raise the aspirations and self esteem of another school community? A judgement of ‘good’ for leadership and management when a head is busy supporting another school could be a cause for celebration. The relentless drive for ‘outstanding’ in all areas of education and the pressure that that brings is in danger of undermining the very success we aim to achieve.