The social mobility solution: school leaders or school structures?

Oct. 3, 2017

James Toop

CEO at Ambition School Leadership

Our event today at the Conservative party conference comes in the midst of our three-day Executive Educators residential training for aspiring multi-academy trust CEOs.

It is a fitting backdrop to our panel discussion: ‘The social mobility solution: school leaders or school structures?’

Joining me to discuss this question will be Chris Kirk, education consultant at CJK Associates; Rebecca Boomer-Clark, Regional Director at Ark Schools; and Paul Whiteman, General Secretary of the NAHT.

The leaders at the Executive Educators residential are grappling with the challenge of how their MATs can increase social mobility for students in disadvantaged communities. It is a gauntlet set down for all of the leaders in our network – whether CEO or middle leader; part of a MAT, a diocese, or a Local Authority-controlled school.

In a toss-up between leadership and structures, for me, leadership wins every time. Structural reform has given leaders the freedom and autonomy to implement their school models, but these vary widely and the only consistent feature is that where leadership is good, pupil outcomes are good. The structure will only be as effective as the leadership.

In England, schools where Ofsted rates the quality of leadership and management higher than the school’s overall performance are ten times as likely to see improvement in their overall performance at their next inspection than those where leadership and management is rated worse than performance overall (read full research findings on the progress gap in England here).


The Education Policy Institute showed earlier this year that there is significant variation in performance at different types of academies and MATs. We do not yet have an evidence base which indicates the characteristics of a successful, sustainable MAT; no blueprint to guide the MAT CEOs I’ve been meeting at our residential in Loughborough over the last few days.

What’s left, then are the people inside the structures, the way they lead and the decision they take: the CEOs, Executive Headteachers, Headteachers, SLTs, Heads of Department, Faculty Leaders, Teachers, NQTs, TAs, and myriad support and administrative staff who make our schools tick.

To maximise the impact leadership within school structures, I think we need three things: consistency, coherence and capacity.

Consistency: a recent Social Mobility Commission highlighted that 88% of variation in pupil outcomes comes from within schools. For example, I visit many schools with a strong English department but weak maths and science, or strong year 4 but weak year 6. Many schools have built excellent senior leadership teams but need to develop their middle leadership. To deliver consistently, we need reliable leadership at every level of the school and right across the school.

Coherence: leaders, especially those in MATs, need a clear strategy which drives their ability to improve outcomes for children. This should be based on a clear mission and model for running their schools. Many are growing with financial sustainability as a driver rather than with a coherent sense of how the “MAT effect” will improve outcomes for children. Leaders need a clear mission and school improvement model before they consider growth.

Capacity: we still have leadership supply problem. As we showed in our report with Teach First and McKinsey last year, not enough leaders want to become headteachers; we cannot attract talent into more isolated areas, and many MATs struggle to expand as they don’t have the leadership capacity to take on new schools. We need a leadership pipeline to retain and develop our best leaders and keep them in the schools that need them most.


We have seen from our network that a structure with exceptional leadership with consistency, coherence and capacity can achieve transformational results in our most disadvantaged communities. Luke Sparkes, an alum of our Future Leaders programme, is an example of this. As part of the Dixons MAT in Bradford, an Opportunity Area, Luke became the founding Principal of Dixons Trinity Academy, and has since led its status as the first secondary free school to be awarded 'outstanding' by Ofsted. Their first set of full GCSE results this year were impressive: 70% of students achieved a strong pass in English and maths, and the average grade achieved by students was a B.

The high-performing grades are important for a community which, historically, has seen low progression to FE and HE. But underpinning these is the mission ‘to ensure that all students climb the mountain to university or a real alternative’, and an innovative curriculum and approach to teaching and learning and extra-curricular activities.

‘Climbing the mountain’ is the message which flows throughout. At year 6 induction, all prospective students are bussed to nearby Leeds University so that they can visualise the ‘peak’ of their educational climb; it will be the first time most of them have been to a university, and Luke and his team know how important it is to give Bradford students this experience.

Then, in year 8, all students go on a field trip to climb a mountain – bringing the narrative of working hard towards a seemingly far-off goal to life. The Dixons Trinity team are proud to say that every child has got to the top of this mountain; even a student in a wheelchair. Aspiration and achievement are for everyone.

This is a school excelling within its structure, and a team of educators empowered to make a real difference for the students they serve. We will deliver school improvement when the structures set in Whitehall are built to support the leaders, teachers and students within them. This is the key to unlock social mobility through education.

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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