Widening impact and building networks: a personal reflection on Teaching Leaders

May 20, 2019
Brenna Dorrance

Brenna Dorrance

Dean of Middle Leadership Programmes, Ambition Institute

Eight years ago, I started working on the Teaching Leaders programme.

My first task: to recruit thirty high-potential middle leaders from the North to lead our organisational mission of making a difference to the lives of pupils who need it most.

Since then, the programme has gone from strength to strength.

In 2017, a DfE commissioned study showed that our programme was the first in England to have a measurable impact on pupil outcomes. Flash forward to today – Ambition Institute serves over 1,000 middle leaders a year and has an alumni network of over 5,000. I am enormously proud of how far we’ve come and what all our middle leaders have achieved.

Every day, however, I am reminded of how much more there is still to do. Recently, a report by the Social Mobility Commission showed that inequality in this country has remained ‘virtually stagnant’ since 2014. An Impetus study published in April showed that young people with low qualifications are twice as likely to be NEET as those with five GCSEs (29% vs 15%), with those who are ‘high-qualified' experiencing the lowest NEET rates (8% Not in Education, Employment, or Training). In fact, half of all NEET young people are ‘low-qualified’, despite the fact they make up only around a quarter of the total population in this study.

That same study tells us that where a child grows up has a huge impact on their life chances. A disadvantaged young person in the North East, for example, is 50% more likely to end up NEET than a disadvantaged young person in London.

Besides this being a call to action to address the factors outside of a school’s control, it also forces us to confront the often-ignored educational disadvantage represented by geography in this country.


Perhaps because I call the North of England my home, I find this research particularly galvanising. Too often, access to high-quality career and development pathways are limited to geographic areas where it is, frankly, easier to work. When school leaders and teachers are unable to access high-quality training the impact is felt by their teams and the pupils in their schools.

Our newly-revised Teaching Leaders programme starts to address some of these elements of disadvantage. Over 80% of the 500 participants on our new cohort will be from Achieving Excellence Areas five and six. Though it is not always easy to reach these participants, we are challenging ourselves to keep getting better by focusing our energy on the areas and schools where we can have the most impact.

Part of this investment is providing a world-class virtual learning system to bring expert training to all corners of the country. Every participant on the new Teaching Leaders programme will have 1:1 academic tutoring and an expert-facilitated peer learning group to compliment the individual coaching that we already know makes a difference.

We’ve also changed our delivery model to reduce the amount of face-to-face sessions, replacing them with online support from the network and a range of experts. This will go a long way towards addressing the geographic inequality that many middle leaders face.


The Teaching Leaders programme is excellent training, but I’ve always said what matters most is what happens next. What middle leaders do back in school, the standards they uphold, the difficult decisions they make and how they continue to support each other is what really makes a difference.

Last month, a Teaching Leaders participant told me that her peers on the programme are one of the key factors keeping her in her role – a role which has been very challenging and not what she expected. A participant on the 2011 cohort described this feeling as ‘like having an invisible army behind you as you walk through school’.

As we expand our community to include new geographic areas, we want to encourage you to support one another to make sure that every child is guaranteed a great education. Though we can’t control every factor that determines their fate, collectively we have some power in influencing the quality of the teaching and leadership in their schools, which we know makes a critical difference.

As you strive to give every child a fair chance at having choice in their future, regardless of where they are from, remember that you are part of our community that’s making a difference.

Keep getting better – we’ve got your back.

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