Setting the standard

This article originally appeared in Leader magazine
Spring Term 1 2021

The Headteachers’ Standards 2020 are rooted in what a ‘good head’ knows, understands and does in leading and managing a school, says Chair of the Review Group, Malcolm Trobe CBE.

With everything that happened last year, it’s understandable that a significant anniversary passed unnoticed. National Professional Qualification for Headship (NPQH) celebrated its 25th birthday. In 1995, the then Secretary of State, Gillian Shephard, introduced the qualification and, interestingly, it preceded the development of any form of standards for school leaders. David Blunkett first mooted the idea of national standards for headteachers when in opposition, and introduced the first iteration of Headteachers’ Standards, as Secretary of State in 1998, saying, “As the quality of Headteacher appraisal is inconsistent, it is crucial that clearer quality guidelines are set.” There was general agreement then that statements clearly expressing the high expectations that society and the profession itself rightly have of those who lead our schools was a positive step.

However, education has moved on over the last 25 years, as have several aspects of school leadership and, in July 2019, I was privileged to be asked to chair a group to review and revise the Headteachers’ Standards. The group was charged with reflecting how school leadership had changed since the 2015 standards and developing a new set of standards.

Gathering evidence
Initially, we gathered evidence, examining what leadership standards were used in other jurisdictions and professions, and curating research about what makes for successful leadership of schools. We found that school leadership research is quite limited and of variable quality. However, we were able to track some of the different approaches taken to school leadership.

Previously, there had been a promotion of the ’hero’ paradigm of school leadership but we were aware that the impossible demands this overwhelming focus on the individual makes is misdirected. Then there was the idea that leadership was generic and transferable to many different contexts and across a range of work domains. While we acknowledged there are some things to be learnt from outside the sphere of schools and education, we were also very aware of the specificities in the complex activities of leading a school. There is a great deal of expert knowledge and experience that is a critical and necessary requirement of being an effective school leader. The standards needed to reflect this domain-specific leadership.

The anecdotal feedback the group received was that the use of the 2015 standards was patchy and certainly not extensive, given the document had been clear on the expected uses of the standards. This led us to two decisions. First, we had to develop standards that were clear, fit for purpose and promoted vigorously. They had to be of real practical use to heads, employers and those engaged in leadership training and development. Second, given the shortage of evidence on the use and effectiveness of previous versions of the standards, we would recommend that the DfE should actively consider how to review the impact and use of the standards to inform any future revisions.

Coherence and consistency
We were keen to support coherence, consistency and progression through a person’s career as they moved into various leadership positions. So, building from the Teachers’ Standards and the Early Career Framework was important. The first six standards were all developed from that work, while in parallel we looked to express the leadership and management aspects specific to headship. Crucially, we sought to reflect the knowledge and experience needed to be a good school leader. We used the experience of those in the review group and the advice we received to ensure the standards were rooted in what a good head does in leading a school. We were aware that although previous versions of the standards referenced Part 2 of the Teachers’ Standards, those aspects were not developed further into the leadership role.

Ethics and professional conduct at the core
In the consultation phase, we received overwhelming support for including the leadership dimension developed from Teachers’ Standards Part 2. In this section, we sought to express how headteachers uphold public trust in school leadership and maintain high standards of ethics and behaviour as leaders of their school community and the profession. We emphasised the Principles of Public Life (the ‘Nolan Principles’) and placed this section at the core of the 2020 standards. As headteachers are accountable for fulfilling their professional responsibilities and need to uphold their obligation to give account and accept responsibility for what goes on in the school, we placed the other three domains (Culture and Ethos, Curriculum and Teaching, Organisational Effectiveness) within the ring of the Governance and Accountability domain.

Uses of the standards
The 2020 standards have already been used to shape the new national professional qualifications (NPQ) frameworks and should assist current and aspiring headteachers in their professional development. They are a key component of the appraisal process for headteachers and are expected to be used by employers in recruitment and appointment.

As the standards cover the full breadth of leadership responsibilities within a single school, all the standards are relevant to most headteachers in maintained schools and single academies. The review group recognised that in some circumstances, such as leading a school in a multi-academy trust, the role of that school leader will not facilitate access to all these standards. In these cases, it is anticipated that the employer will determine which standards apply to that role. Similarly, for leadership posts such as deputy or assistant headships, it may be wholly appropriate to expect those leaders to meet standards relevant to their roles. In this way I believe the 2020 standards should be of great practical use.

Next steps
As the 2020 Headteachers’ Standards were published when some performance management processes were completed or ongoing, this may be a transition year. It is anticipated that these new standards will be the basis of all ongoing development conversations and fully effective for all for the next appraisal cycle. The standards were influential in the new NPQ leadership frameworks that form the basis of the new NPQs. The first cohorts on these qualifications start in September 2021.

Download the Headteachers’ Standards 202

Malcolm Trobe, CBE
Independent Education Specialist and Consultant and Programme Director of ASCL’s NPQEL programme

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