Leading the Way?

This article originally appeared in Leader magazine
Spring Term 2 2022

Education gurus Tim Brighouse and Mick Waters take members on an educational journey through time and ask can we learn anything about successful leadership from secretaries of state?

Our book, About Our Schools: Improving on previous best, sets out essential reforms to prepare pupils for a future where working and social lives will be profoundly changed by automation, robotics, nanotechnology, artificial intelligence (AI), population shift and climate change. Before those of you in schools sigh, “Oh no – here we go again”, it’s important to say that most of these reforms lie outside schools but influence unhelpfully what goes on inside them. 

In the book, we review our present schooling age of markets, centralisation and managerialism, which has lasted since the 1980s, and argue for the establishment of a new one, more fitted to the present and future – one of hope, ambition and collaborative partnerships. We identify what has worked well – a focus on school improvement and leadership being one of the pluses – and suggest changes where things haven’t worked so well. These are many: inspection, norm-referenced exams (GCSEs and SATs), school admissions, special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) and a narrow curriculum featuring in quite a long list. Most unhelpful is the consequence of a too directive DfE. We think the time is ripe not just to get ‘back to normal’ as we adjust to the endemic stage of Covid, but to be much more ambitious as we move from successfully educating ‘the few’ in the immediate post-war years, through ‘the many’ at present, to providing success for everyone. And in the process, we will overcome the failure experienced by what many witnesses described as ‘the forgotten third’ – those pupils whose minds we don’t unlock and whose shut hearts we don’t open. 

In writing the book, however, we had an opportunity to reflect on leadership both locally in schools, MATs and local authorities (LAs), and nationally in DfE, Ofsted and the teacher unions. We interviewed over 100 witnesses including several secretaries of state, schools ministers, heads of Ofsted, a couple of permanent secretaries at the DfE, a children’s commissioner, CEOs of national charities and, of course, many CEOs of large and small MATs, together with dozens of school leaders. 

Uncertainly certain 
At the end of each interview we took stock of what we had heard and occasionally, when a witness had presented as very certain about almost everything – even to the point of dismissing ‘out of hand’ alternative points of view – one or other of us would say, “I wish I were that certain.” 

We must hasten to add that our Secretary of State witnesses were not ‘that certain’ although they illustrated some flaws in how our system is led. Apart from four – Kenneth Baker (1986), David Blunkett (1997), Ed Balls (2007) and Michael Gove (2010) – they were ill-prepared for their responsibilities: most had less than 24 hours’ notice before taking up the post for which they didn’t apply, no job description, no induction and in most cases no previous knowledge of schools or colleges, beyond attendance as a student – the exceptions were Estelle Morris and Gillian Shephard. Since the average ministerial tenure is just over two years, it’s small wonder that they complained of having a full in-tray of unfinished business to be picked up from predecessors and didn’t stay long enough to make a lasting difference with the policy initiatives they started. It helps to explain too why Charles Clarke called his book, Too Difficult Box: The big issues politicians can’t crack – in the case of schooling, full of unaddressed problems like SEND funding and systems, exam reform and teacher supply. Ministers tend to ‘tinker’ rather than create a long-term strategy and when they do, they never stay long enough to see through the consequences. 

We reflected on all the school leaders we had known in our combined 80+ years of close experience and interest in school improvement and leadership. Among the thousands we had known, less than a handful made a lasting impression – well, at any rate, a good one – in a stay of just over two years. What’s more, they all had longer than 24 hours to prepare and had relevant experience prior to taking the job! That’s why those four exceptions are instructive. 

Both Blunkett and Gove were Shadow Secretaries of State before taking up post immediately after an election; Baker had introduced computers and the Technical and Vocational Education Initiative (TVEI) from the Department of Employment, before transferring to the DfE, and Balls had a burning interest in education from work in the Treasury with Gordon Brown. Gove had been shadow minister and had decided on a systemic lurch, with irreversible consequences, well before his tenure began. All four were prepared and made a lasting difference, whereas the others didn’t (although Estelle Morris, for similar reasons, did as schools minister). It’s the same in schools, where evidence suggests, for leaders, a stay of at least three – and ideally seven – years is essential for school wellbeing. 

Essential leadership characteristics 
There’s much more to successful leadership and in the book, we devote a long chapter to school improvement, setting out the optimal ingredients in improving schools and the styles, behaviours, qualities and judgement of successful leadership at all levels within and beyond the school. You will know how the ingredients vary with context of time and personnel, and whether you are leading a dysfunctional school, or one that is already successful; and in both cases, whether you are in a crisis. 

Among many other points, we were convinced that five characteristics are essential to successful leadership, whether in a school, MAT or nationally: 

  1. unwarranted optimism  

  2. regarding crisis to be the norm and complexity as fun  

  3. a bottomless well of intellectual curiosity  

  4. a complete absence of self-pity or paranoia  

  5. spotting gaps in hedges 

This last requires imagination and usually brings unexpected advantages unseen by other leaders: an example at present would be taking advantage of apprenticeship resources. We couldn’t help noticing, however, that while school leaders exploit the gaps in hedges, ministers tend to close them or engage in topiary.

About the authors:

Tim Brighouse – twice a chief education officer – once in Oxfordshire and once in Birmingham, each time for ten years – and leader of the London Challenge. 

Mick Waters – a former headteacher, has worked in teacher education and at policy levels in both local and national government. 

Hear more from Tim and Mick on ASCL’s Leaders are Readers podcast –www.ascl.org.uk/News/Podcasts/Leaders-reading

Tim and Mick’s new book, About Our Schools: Improving on previous best (Crown House Publishing, 2022), is out now – www.crownhouse.co.uk/about-our-schools (All royalties from sales of this book will be donated to Barnardo’s and the Compassionate Education Foundation) 

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