Learnings from Expert Middle Leaders

Aug. 30, 2019
Tom Rees

Tom Rees

Executive Director of School Leadership

As I clicked onto the first slide of my welcome to 500 middle leaders at the Teaching Leaders residential on Tuesday morning, I paused to look up at the faces in front of me.

The participants, drawn from across the country, had earned their place through an intensive selection process. They had given up a week of their summer to attend our residential. And they represented some of the most disadvantaged schools in England. Of the 500 middle leaders on the programme, 80% are from the areas where the education challenge is the greatest (DfE Areas 5 & 6) and 70% are from schools categorised by Ofsted as Requires Improvement or Inadequate.  

At Ambition Institute, our mission is to help educators serving children from disadvantaged backgrounds to keep getting better. The scale and reach of Teaching Leaders has the potential to help us make real headway on this mission.  

So, I knew it was important that we got it right.  

Back in March at the launch of Ambition Institute, I wrote about some of the concepts and ideas around school leadership I thought required closer scrutiny, including generic management approaches and concepts dominated by the theory of transformational leadership. 

Since then, we’ve been doubling down on the redesign of our leadership programmes. With the ambition to reach 15,000 more educators with our programmes in the coming five years, we recognise both our opportunity and our responsibility to develop the most impactful development programmes. 

This means we’ve set a really high bar to ensure the content of our programmes is informed by the best available evidence, so we can make the best use of the precious and limited time we get to work with school leaders.   

My colleagues in our Learning Design team – led by Marie Hamer, Jen Barker and Peps Mccrea – have been forensic in scouring the literature and engaging in discussions with school leaders, academics and educators across the country to help us hone in on the most important things we want middle leaders to know and be able to do. Our focus has been on the ‘substance over style’ of their work (you can read more about why I think this is important here).  

This past week is the result of all their work. We’ve been introducing participants to what the research says about the importance of knowledge in leadership expertise, and the need for leaders in schools to have a secure understanding of how pupils learn.  

A central objective of this re-designed programme is for middle leaders to think about improving pupil outcomes through the lens of their subject, rather than to reach for generic approaches to ‘teaching and learning’.  

Instead of presenting ideas that could be implemented in a prescriptive style, we’ve shared curriculum principles so that leaders will employ a set of strategies which respect the distinct nature of their subject disciplines. 

We’re aware of the challenge for us in leadership training, where good ideas and evidence-based strategies can be taken and implemented quickly or poorly in different contexts – making them ineffective or even counter-productive (my colleague Nick Rose writes about this here using Dylan Wiliam’s phrase of ‘lethal mutations’).  

This why we’ve paid close attention to the programme rhythm and the types of activity participants will have with us over the next two years. During this time, they’ll have regular opportunities to work with subject experts to develop both their understanding and their implementation plans.  

The reaction to this week has been phenomenal and overwhelming. The #ExpertMiddleLeaders hashtag has been awash with interest and endorsement from across the sector and it’s been both validating and motivating for our team to read. It will spur us on to do more in the years ahead. 

In the foreword to Nick Rose and David Didau’s book ‘What every teacher needs to know about psychology’, Professor Rob Coe writes of the education system having an increased appetite for research evidence and taking an increasingly critical and sophisticated research stance. He says: 

‘The landscape is still one where a few pioneers forge a route through a challenging environment, working hard to gain every step of the journey. We don’t yet have the infrastructure of roads, railways and settlements that would allow mass travel, but slowly and inevitably it will come.’ 

This week gives me hope that we can shift the dial in education through focusing on the development of expertise. It has shown me that a programme of this scale can be a powerful lever in creating that infrastructure, which will ensure educators in England get the development they deserve – and their pupils get the very best education..


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