Proving or improving? What's next for school leadership?

Jan. 31, 2019
Tom Rees

Tom Rees

Executive Director of School Leadership

Each new year brings fresh challenges to leaders in our schools.

2019 and the release of the new Ofsted inspection framework consultation offers new opportunities for school leaders. 

It's an exciting time to be in education. More than at any point I can remember in the 20 years I've worked in schools, it feels like there is a real agency for leaders to take decisions based on what they know or believe to be right, rather than what they feel they should be doing for someone else.

The revised inspection framework, now in consultation phase, offers us a real opportunity to reset the accountability culture in schools and support a healthier, more sustainable climate for teachers.

Although not without its challenges and controversy, there are many things we should applaud within the new framework. Highlights include the rebirth of curriculum as the driver of school improvement, more sensible use of pupil data and a commitment to reducing workload for teachers. These are all welcome initiatives and represent a significant shift from previous relationships with the inspectorate.

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Proving or improving?

When I first became a headteacher in 2008, it was made clear that the main purpose of my role was to be the lead inspector for my school. The responsibilities of this 'lead inspector' role were elaborated on throughout my first term in various training and briefings. They included:

  • Being able to grade lessons accurately through 20-minute drop-ins
  • Judging the progress data of each class and teacher as either 'requiring improvement', 'good' or 'outstanding' on a half-termly basis depending on the average points score gain each year
  • Maintaining a Self-Evaluation Form (SEF) with accurate judgements on over 30 individual aspects of the inspection framework
  • Being Ofsted-ready, through a comprehensive evidence base for all elements of framework to demonstrate to a team of external inspectors
  • Experiences like this are all too familiar to those in school leadership within that era and reflect a culture of hyper-accountability at that time.

This led to a trend for leaders becoming primarily concerned with gathering evidence to prove their impact, rather than focusing on things we now know make most impact. It is unsurprising, therefore, that last year, a Teacher Tapp survey revealed that 60% of teachers agreed that much of the activity in their school is driven primarily for observers and inspectors

"The revised inspection framework offers us a real opportunity to reset the accountability culture in schools and support a healthier, more sustainable climate for teachers."

I look at this period and think of the wasted opportunities that took place in the name of accountability and how much we accepted freely without proper debate or critical appraisal. 

If I could have that time again, I would be far more thorough in my research of new ideas, more committed to the process of implementation and more reluctant to change what experienced teachers said was working. 

Above all, I would consider far more carefully the impact any policy decision would have on teachers' workload.

Thankfully, the conversation has moved on considerably in recent years and is leading us towards a more informed position of school improvement work. I believe the new framework may offer us a genuine opportunity to leave behind the obsession with proving impact, and to redirect our attention into authentic and sustainable school improvement work. We should grasp it with both hands.

The curriculum for school leaders

A renewed focus and discussion about the school curriculum is also relevant within our organisation and challenges us to think more closely about the specific things that educators need to know and be able to do.

Just as schools are thinking more carefully about their curriculum substance and sequence, we are spending time discussing and debating the content and teaching approaches within our programme design.

This rich conversation is one I have enjoyed exploring already with colleagues at Ambition School Leadership and the Institute for Teaching since joining the organisation. It's one which will continue in the months ahead and poses a number of interesting questions including:

  • What is the purpose of leadership in today's education system?
  • What are the most important things that school leaders should know and be able to do?
  • How can this be organised and sequenced most effectively within a development programme?
  • How do we know that new learning leads to new or improved habits or behaviour change?
  • How can we further improve our offer of leadership programmes to have the best possible impact in the precious time that school leaders have available?

These are important curricular questions and challenges for anyone involved in delivering training and development, particularly within an organisation such as ours which will train 20,000 teachers and school leaders in the next five years.

It's why we're working really hard on our thinking; developing ideas from across the organisation, within our network of talented school leaders and from the literature and research in this area.

Bringing together the combined experience and expertise of colleagues through the merger of Ambition School Leadership and the Institute for Teaching offers us such a great opportunity to take leadership development to a new level and build a network of exceptional school leaders at all levels to transform the lives of the children who need it most.

I hope that our work will support a future generation of phenomenal school leaders and build important capacity in the system. It’s a real privilege to join the team and I look forward to building more world class training and development opportunities in the future.


Tom is a former executive headteacher, author of Wholesome Leadership and blogger. He is now Executive Director of School Leadership at Ambition and the IfT and presents on our Teaching Leaders Primary Mastery programme. 

Teaching Leaders Primary Mastery is a one-year programme that builds advanced leadership skills in middle leaders and focuses on the highest leverage areas that have the biggest impact on pupils. Register your interest to learn more. 


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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