December 2012

The know zone

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  • Lead vocals
    Quotes from Barack Obama, Nelson Mandela, Oscar Wilde, Winston Churchhill, Indira Gandhi More
  • Adding value
    When budgets are tight, keeping staff healthy ensures your workforce is productive and supply costs are kept to a minimum. More
  • Telling fortunes?
    Will the government’s plan to replace GCSEs with EBacc Certificates have the potential to help raise standards as is intended? Or will it have the opposite effect? More
  • Leaders' Surgery
    The antidote to common leadership conundrums... More
  • Cause for grade concerns
    The ASCL Council meeting in Reading on 11-12 October was dominated by curriculum and qualifications – not just the GCSE English legal challenge, but also proposed changes to GCSE exams and the introduction of the English Baccalaureate Certificates (EBCs). More
  • Supporting success
    Many very capable leaders are put off working in challenging schools because of the vulnerability of the roles. It is better support, not higher pay, that will turn this around, says Brian Lightman. He outlines what an effective support package should look like. More
  • A war of nerves?
    Trying to win over the hearts and minds of potential students and parents is no easy feat – in many aspects it’s as daunting as facing the dreaded Ofsted inspector, says Ross Morrison McGill. More
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Many very capable leaders are put off working in challenging schools because of the vulnerability of the roles. It is better support, not higher pay, that will turn this around, says Brian Lightman. He outlines what an effective support package should look like.

Supporting success

There is a broad consensus across the political spectrum that we need to recruit and retain the best leaders and teachers into schools in the most challenging communities. We know this is key to raising standards but to make a difference to these young people leaders require resilience, perseverance, teamwork and a vast amount of hard work.

People taking on leadership roles in these schools need the full buy-in and support of their local communities, their employers and those in government.

When individuals have shown the commitment to take on such demanding posts, it is simply not acceptable to appoint them and then discard them when things do not improve quickly enough; additionally, they are often blamed for failing to meet ambitious targets or failing to achieve a high Ofsted grade before they have had adequate time to implement and embed the necessary changes.

One of the questions I am often asked by officials and policy makers is what kind of incentives would be most effective for encouraging good leaders to work in challenging schools.

Some believe that increased salaries are the answer.

However, ASCL members say that this is not about pay. What is coming through very strongly in the polls we have done at our information conferences is that the greatest incentive would be an agreed and funded support package, negotiated on appointment, to assist post-holders personally as well as to support targeted areas in the school.

Here are some ideas about what that package might look like and who might be involved in providing it.

Fixed-term secondments

The degree of challenge in many of these schools means that it is often experienced heads who are best placed to take on roles of this kind. Some of the best applicants will already be working in schools that have improved significantly under their leadership and in which their current jobs are safe.

For this reason, the idea of a fixed-term secondment or executive headship is often very attractive as these approaches retain their link with the home school. Often, the schools needing new heads will be sponsored academies and this kind of support may well be delivered very effectively through the sponsors or an academy chain. This also enables potential leaders to be moved around within a group of schools and to be supported by those networks.

Success is not guaranteed, however, nor is this approach necessarily a panacea. The details need to be negotiated carefully before any commitment is made. A move from a school with a supportive governing body, a strong leadership team, good employee relations and the support of the community into one where the presence of a ‘new broom’ is not appreciated can put the new person in an extremely vulnerable position. They can find themselves at the receiving end of grievances and disputes and they need to know that their employer will support them in such cases.

ASCL’s advice is always to consult with our member support department before finalising the terms of any such appointment package.

External audit

The second aspect of such a support package is about the way in which a person coming in to such a context will be helped in the work he or she needs to do. This clearly needs to be tailored to individual circumstances but it would probably cover the following areas.

Almost certainly, there will be a need for an external audit and review to take stock of the short-, medium- and long-term needs of the school and to help the new headteacher put together and implement appropriate strategic plans. This package of support, properly funded, is the kind of approach that has seen great success in initiatives such as the London Challenge.

Other support might include reviews of teaching and learning, curriculum provision, compliance issues, and a financial or HR audit. These may then lead to specialist advice and support being brought into these areas or temporary staff being appointed to address specific tasks. A key element of such a support package would be to ensure that the governing body and staff have the capacity to address the needs of the school.

CPD for all staff

Thirdly, that package would almost certainly include helping the head to put together a coherent programme of professional development for all staff, targeted at both specific issues and general training requirements.

The question of who might provide these kinds of services relates closely to the current debate about the ‘middle tier’ support and accountability mechanism, in between national government and the school.

ASCL would argue that there is no single solution to this question. In some cases, it may be that an academy chain or sponsor will be best placed to provide such services. In others, it may be a combination with some aspects coming through local partnerships such as teaching schools or National Support Schools. In some areas, there will be local authorities that retain the capacity to offer such services. It may be that some services can be commissioned from other providers including ASCL Professional Development. In such cases, the appointment of somebody to coordinate commissioning could be part of the support package.

The kinds of support I have described here are specific and tangible. I have focused on headship but many of these points are equally applicable to other senior and middle leadership positions.

There is, however, one other aspect that is equally important. It is about the ethos that surrounds these appointments and the status and recognition given to the people in the roles. Central to this is the need to trust professionals to get on with the job and thereby empower them to do so with confidence.

Finally, for a range of reasons, options for ending the contract need to be built in. On the one hand it may be best for a fixed-term appointment to be made to do a particular job and then for a substantive head to be appointed once the school has reached a stable state.

Exit strategy

In such cases, an agreed exit package could be attractive, particularly to successful school leaders relatively close to retirement. On the other hand, there is a vast amount of risk in taking on such a post, even for practitioners who have the greatest track records of success. The fact that things do not always work out should not automatically involve an undignified exit for someone who was highly successful in a different context and who is still capable of doing a great job elsewhere. Such terms can be agreed in an appointment package.

Getting this right is the key to narrowing the gap between the most and least advantaged young people and I know that ministers will listen with interest to any proposals we have. I would welcome feedback from members as we take this discussion forward (Please send any feedback by email to

  • Brian Lightman is ASCL General Secretary