The most rewarding challenge

Jan. 26, 2016
Michael Wilshaw

Sir Michael Wilshaw

Chief Inspector, Ofsted

Good leadership in a school is absolutely fundamental to delivering good education for children.

In the course of my 46-year career, I have met a lot of great headteachers. All of them had different ideas and leadership styles, but the best heads do share some qualities and skills. First and foremost, they are all passionate about raising standards for their students.

They need to be resilient, both mentally – because it is a high-pressure job – and physically, because heads need to be up and about, and visible around their school.

That visibility should carry with it a certain presence – as a head you are not only a teacher but a leader, and respect for good leadership must be part of school culture. At the same time, headteachers need to be able to get on with the staff, pupils and community who will help make a school successful.

Great heads are often competitive, and that’s a positive thing: they want their school and students to be the best they can be. I’ve never met a good head who didn’t want to have the best results in the area.

The key pleasure and satisfaction of headship is working with young people every day. Young people can be creative, lively and are constantly surprising – it’s the head’s job and privilege to help shape them into happy, successful adults and good citizens in their communities.

I became a headteacher after my head at that time pointed out a vacancy in a local school and urged me to apply. I had learned a lot from working alongside other leaders, and that made me a good deputy. Great headteachers aren’t born, although some have more innate skills than others. As with teaching, you can learn the craft of leadership by observing what others do, seeing what works and adapting it to suit your own style. With formal training and access to mentors, that process can be improved and accelerated. I have no doubt that I would have been a better head earlier in my career if I’d had access to training programmes.

"It’s incumbent on all leaders to plan for succession and develop potential within their teams in order to ensure a positive future, not only for their school but the wider sector."

That’s why heads must encourage their leadership teams to develop, whether through in-school opportunities or external programmes. It’s incumbent on all leaders to plan for succession and develop potential within their teams in order to ensure a positive future, not only for their school but the wider sector.

Ofsted may be regarded with trepidation by some, but we exist to support heads and schools. One of Ofsted’s hardest and most important jobs is to recognise capacity for improvement as well as ability. When we see a headteacher in a struggling setting who has a clear plan to improve both their school and their own leadership, we are there to support them. As a headteacher, Ofsted challenged me to improve. Its role is to do the same in every school across the country, to raise standards and give our children better lives.

That’s the main goal of education. To change lives is a bold aim – it demands bold plans. Great headteachers have a thoughtful approach but are also very practical. They need to be visionaries and pragmatists who are able to deliver. After all, without a defined plan a headteacher’s vision is nothing but warm words and rhetoric that won’t help any child succeed.


This article is taken from our report "Heads Up: Meeting the challenges of headteacher recruitment". Click here to download a PDF.


This article originally appeared on the website of Ambition School Leadership. In March 2019, the Institute for Teaching merged with Ambition School Leadership to form Ambition Institute.


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