Specialist NPQs: The next step in your leadership development?

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Date published 09 February 2023

Ambition Institute’s National Professional Qualification (NPQ) leads Ben Karlin and Toby Horrocks explain how deepening your expertise can support you to become an even better school leader. They recommend that leaders who have already completed a leadership NPQ, and are looking to keep developing, consider a specialist NPQ.

In September 2021, the Department for Education reformed the National Professional Qualifications (NPQs): the three existing leadership NPQs were refreshed to reflect the latest evidence in effective leadership, the NPQ in Middle Leadership was discontinued and a suite of new ‘specialist’ NPQs introduced.

Specialist NPQs offer in-depth insight to a range of responsibilities across all schools and settings, from literacy and teacher development, to driving positive change in behaviour and culture. However, leaders who have already completed a leadership NPQ may not immediately consider the specialist NPQs when it comes to furthering their leadership capabilities.

We believe that specialist NPQs can be highly valuable for leaders looking to deepen their practice and encourage anyone to look carefully at the specialist frameworks when considering their further professional development. Here are three reasons why:

1. Leaders need breadth and depth

School leadership is challenging for many reasons; amongst them, leaders need to be knowledgeable about lots of different things. A headteacher might find themselves talking to a colleague about curriculum one minute, but in the next they are discussing how they are going to fix that persistent leak coming from the ceiling in the hall.

School leadership is full of moments like this: shifting from thinking about one area, to concentrating on another. It’s why our NPQ leadership programmes, and the frameworks they are based on, focus on breadth.

But genuine expertise requires more than breadth; it requires depth too.

Challenges like how to get pupils to be able to read and write, or how to motivate and support staff to be even better teachers, are complex. Researchers, across a range of fields, have spent decades arguing about the best ways to solve them. (And other challenges that school leaders frequently face, too.)

Ambition’s specialist programmes, like our leadership programmes, aim to distil this information. But, they afford much greater time and space to dive into the detail. In fact, a specialist NPQ offers six times as many modules on one area as can be offered on any of the leadership NPQs.


2. Specialising can progress your leadership career

Leadership programmes are popular both with those wanting to improve in their current role, and those aspiring to move to the next level in their careers. They’re structured to move up the leadership scale – from senior leadership to headship to executive leadership.

Yet specialist NPQs are a fantastic career development tool too. Participants on these programmes can gain deep knowledge and expertise in areas that are highly valuable to schools.

Take, as an example, the NPQ in Leading Teacher Development (NPQLTD). This programme’s sole focus is to help leaders to develop the knowledge and skills they need to support their staff to get better through professional development.

Professional development (PD) represents a reasonably cost-effective solution, if done well, when compared with alternative school improvement strategies. But it is also far from straight-forward. Getting people to change long-held habits is hard. Making those changes stick is even harder.

The NPQLTD programme contains 18 modules dedicated to helping leaders understand how they can create great PD experiences for their staff. This includes learning how to sequence whole curricula and individual sessions, to learning how to create an environment outside of the PD session which allows staff to take on new ideas and run with them.

This understanding is a highly valuable asset to any leadership team. All schools want and need their teachers to keep getting better. Equally, investments in professional development are crucial to school improvement. By completing the NPQLTD, you can become the expert schools are looking for to make those investments pay off.

The same goes for other specialist NPQs, such as the NPQ in Leading Behaviour and Culture or Leading Literacy. Because they are focused on areas that represent the most pressing and persistent problems all schools face, these programmes help participants to develop deep – and marketable – expertise.

3. Specialists help pupils make progress

The quality of leadership in a school goes a long way to determining outcomes for its pupils.

The breadth of knowledge offered by a leadership NPQ is a fantastic starting point to build the capability of a school leadership team. To truly unlock the potential of leadership to improve outcomes, however, schools should focus on their activities being expertly planned, evidence-informed and implemented with energy and skill. That’s where specialist programmes can help.

A great example is the NPQ in Leading Literacy. A leader undertaking this course will gain the knowledge to build their school’s approach to reading and literacy around the best available evidence. They will explore that evidence in great depth, discuss it with other passionate leaders of literacy, and learn from expert facilitators. Combined with the breadth of knowledge they could have already built on a leadership NPQ, this leader has the potential to develop a truly rigorous, rich and successful approach to literacy in their school.

And great literacy, like great behaviour and great teaching, underpins so much of children’s success at school. It’s particularly important for schools in areas of high disadvantage where poor literacy skills drive much of the attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their wealthier peers. By becoming an expert in leading literacy in combination with their broad leadership knowledge, a leader has the potential to transform life chances for the pupils in their school.

So, are you facing a specific challenge in your school? Do you want to deepen your knowledge in an area that you know something about? Or do you want to expand your understanding in an area that you have less experience in? If so, consider making your next move into one of our NPQ specialist programmes.

To learn more about our full NPQ suite, visit our programmes page here

Toby Horrocks
Toby Horrocks
Associate Dean, Learning Design

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Benjamin Karlin
Benjamin Karlin
Associate Dean, Learning Design

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Discover our full suite of specialist NPQs and learn more about how they can help support your continued development.

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