Summer Blog: An emerging crisis around school improvement leadership?

Are we clear enough on the difference between ‘improvement delivery’ and ‘improvement leadership’? Is the gulf between headship and school improvement leadership becoming too big? Does the NPQEL have an ‘identity crisis’? Michael Pain’s Summer blog is here:

Each year I publish a blog on the key challenges for the academy trust system. This Easter, I decided to write one early! – setting out my concerns that academy trusts need to do much more to connect with and be accountable to their communities. You can read it here:

In September, and throughout 2019/20, we’ll pick up on this theme, beginning with the national #TrustLeaders conference in Nottingham: ‘academy trusts at the heart of their communities’. I am also pleased that many of our CEO members will be working with Neil Jameson MBE during the year ahead. Neil is the country’s most experienced community organiser and Emeritus Director of Citizens UK.


So, for my Summer blog, I wanted to consider something else – the risk that the sector faces around lack of school improvement ‘leadership’ capacity. This is something that is being raised with me by CEOs on an almost weekly basis now: there are not enough people in the system with sufficient experience of leading ‘whole school’ improvement across more than one school. Indeed, in its’ annual report last year, Ofsted itself raised concerns about a lack of capacity for school improvement across the sector: “leadership capacity in the school sector is worryingly thin… we need many more school leaders to step up to the challenge of providing system leadership…. The DfE needs to do more to grow system leadership capacity.”

This isn’t getting better. The transition from expert practitioner to ‘leader of improvement’ is being lost in many places – and it’s beginning to impact on trusts’ ability to recruit and build capacity for leading improvement at scale. Let me explain….

The ‘holy grail’ of academy trust leadership is achieving school improvement at scale. Trusts emerged from the work of exceptional and practising headteachers leading improvement in (usually) one or two schools other than their own. They honed and developed their skills as National and Local Leaders of Education, taking on responsibility for improvement of a ‘whole school’ – including the setting of targets, brokerage of expertise, co-ordination of support and coaching, and the direction of resources. They were also accountable for impact of improvement work at a ‘whole school’ level. The NLE model had significant impact nationally, but many NLEs wanted to go further, sustaining their impact by supporting these schools and remaining accountable for their improvement over the long term. Many set up federations and academy trusts in order to do just this.

As they became CEOs, these headteachers, quite rightly, had to delegate and distribute the leadership of improvement to others. Not doing so presented a major risk in itself – not least spreading themselves too thinly and creating an organisation too dependent on them as individuals. This is where the challenge begins: whilst some trusts have managed to attract and retain high calibre people in improvement leadership roles – many are beginning to struggle to identify people who have the skills and experience for improvement leadership at scale. In these trusts the CEO is left carrying it or, even worse, people are promoted without the necessary depth of professional experience or improvement leadership skills and experience.

many are beginning to struggle to identify people who have the skills and experience for improvement leadership at scale

Improvement leadership is very different to improvement delivery. Whilst most academy trusts beenfit from employing numerous people who can ‘deliver improvement’ as expert practitioners, such as SLEs (people with a specific area of professional expertise who can provide advanced coaching and training); the challenge arises when looking for improvement leaders who can take on responsibility for leading and co-ordinating ‘whole school’ or trust-wide improvement activity. What is the difference? In my book, Being The CEO, I outline it as follows:


Category 1: Improvement Leaders (National Leaders of Education or equivalent)

  • Experience of delivering whole-scale school improvement successfully
  • Analytical skills
  • Advanced Project Management skills
  • Brokerage skills
  • Influencing and Lateral thinking skills
  • Quality Assurance and the ability to hold others to account (without necessarily line managing them!)
  • Coaching / mentoring skills
  • Stakeholder management skills

In the NHS, these roles are often described as ‘Advanced Improver’ roles and should equate to 0.5% of an organisations’ overall staff. AQuA provide an overall definition: “Individuals with a deep understanding and appreciation for improvement, able to inspire and lead” and, further, “can set improvement priorities from a position of knowledge and insight. They can define areas for staff knowledge and skills development, to meet organisational needs and priorities.”

Category 2: Improvement delivery skills (Specialist Leader of Education or equivalent)

  • Specific (deep) professional expertise
  • Advanced coaching skills
  • Relationship building skills
  • Research skills (desirable)

In the NHS these roles are sometimes referred to as ‘Improvement Practitioners’. They “can teach and coach others about improvement methods. They can act as a thinking partner for those undertaking improvement work. They can act as an advocate for those with improvement ideas who need support to make them happen.” According to AqUA, in order to build sufficient improvement capacity, they should represent around 5% of the workforce.


In the academy trust sector, there is reason to believe that the pipeline into improvement leadership is drying up. There are a number of reasons for this…

A generation of school improvement leaders have now stepped up to be CEOs: This was inevitable and it becomes impossible for people in the CEO job to lead day to day improvement in a trust of more than three of four schools. They have to build the links with governance, work with the DfE and other stakeholders, focus on resourcing and financial aspects of the organisation, and much more. The DfE not only failed to have a strategy for supporting CEOs with this transition, it also failed to build capacity by identifying and training sufficient headteachers as school improvement leaders. Most NLEs have gone on to be CEOs and it has created a vacuum of school improvement leadership expertise in many areas. It’s also worth adding that the demographics don’t help, there is a significant ‘bulge’ of people heading towards sixty right now, meaning a number of experienced practitioners will be heading into retirement in the coming years.

Heads in many trusts are honing their skills as ‘improvement deliverers’, but not as improvement leaders: Many trusts have attempted to build big improvement teams at the centre, but have taken away heads’ responsibility in areas such as curriculum design, resourcing, HR, budget-planning etc. This means that whilst many heads are spending more time on the day to day leadership of teaching and learning (something that suits some heads), they aren’t getting experience of those other key elements that underpin successful school improvement over time. Some trusts are also not giving their heads much of a role in wider school improvement across the trust – these heads are increasingly becoming recipients of trust improvement models, rather than participants in them. That isn’t the case in all trusts, where, rather than have a top-heavy school improvement team, improvement leadership is about co-ordinating and drawing on headteachers to play an active role in providing school to school improvement at scale. This saves money and ensures heads who have capacity and sufficient experience are stepping up to improvement leadership, taking on responsibility for improvement in other schools and honing their (category 1) improvement leadership skills.

(Two good examples of trusts who draw on their heads to participate in and lead school to school improvement activity are:

Flying High Trust case study: MAT Development: the evolution of a MAT-wide school improvement model through growth

Focus-Trust case study: MAT Development: How MATs can develop collective commitment for school improvement at scale)

Training and development is unclear and not sufficiently focused on ‘improvement leadership’: The skills in category one are predominately honed on the job, over time. However, developing these skills also requires a degree of high-quality training and development, as well as coaching from those who have led organisational improvement successfully. Indeed, the NHS has a whole organisation committed to developing improvement leaders – NHS Improvement, yet nothing comes close in the world of academy trusts and schools. The closest we get to a training programme for school improvement leadership these days is the NPQEL. This is a programme with an identity crisis. Is it for CEOs, for executive leaders (those leading more than one school), chief operating officers, or school improvement leaders? It’s hard to tell. It’s a programme that tries to be all things to all people – but, in my view, as a result, doesn’t yet offer enough depth or relevance to those moving specifically into improvement leadership roles. Whilst ‘improvement leadership’ is covered, the programme doesn’t go into sufficient depth around principles of organisations that effectively deliver improvement at scale, or focus sufficiently on essential skills such as embedding advanced project management principles; co-ordinating and building capacity for peer reviews within trusts; or require practical experience of leading a ‘whole cross-school’ improvement project (either beforehand or as a course project). We need to consider a dedicated programme for those stepping up to improvement leadership roles.


So how do we ensure the pipeline for improvement leadership is secured? I believe trusts can do the following things:

  • Provide those heads with sufficient capacity and experience with the opportunity to lead improvement across schools; ensuring they are developing and honing those key skills in category one above. Reinforce this with sufficient coaching and mentoring provided by experienced improvement leaders (perhaps those working in other trusts or indeed other sectors). Forum Strategy has brokered this coaching support for a number of trusts;
  • Ensure that these heads are accessing relevant and focused ‘improvement leadership’ training and drawing upon the evidence that exists both within and beyond the sector. Forum Strategy’s 7 pillars of improvement at scale can provide a helpful starting point, as can providers specialising in areas such as advanced project management training, peer review training (Challenge Partners, for example), and skills in data analysis and management. Organisations such as NHS Improvement and the Care Quality Commission also provide lots of information and resources for free, albeit with a focus on a different sector;
  • Have a clear vision and theory of the case for school improvement at scale, which clearly sets out the responsibilities of those at all levels – including improvement leaders, headteachers and governance. Ensure it is articulated in a way that everyone understands. Trusts should be carefully looking at Category 3 – all staff, and how every member of staff understands how they fit in and can contribute to improvement in some form – enthused and inspired by a compelling vision for children and young people’s educational experience;
  • Create a peer review culture within your MAT and with other trusts. Peer review is an excellent way of generating intelligence to inform improvement and to monitor progress over time– there is nothing more powerful than the observations and feedback of peers. It also creates a sense of collective commitment between schools within trusts, and upskills heads in those key areas of analysis, influencing, and brokerage and QA of support (when following up).


Finally, government needs a more focused strategy around how improvement leadership is generated in the academy trust sector. We need to do much more in terms of generating knowledge and evidence around what effective school improvement leaders do, as well as providing training programme that focus in-depth on improvement leadership skills and traits. Government could also be more explicit about the importance of peer review – and I would encourage the new headteachers standards panel to consider whether engaging in and developing skills for leading peer review should become an essential aspect of the role of headteacher going forwards. Certainly, ensuring all trusts are engaged with a high quality peer review model (of their choosing), would be a good place to start.


You can read more about Forum Strategy’s 7 pillars of improvement at scale here: 7 Pillars of Improvement at Scale

7 pillars of improvement at scale; Key questions for boards and executive teams: 7 pillars of improvement at scale: Key questions for boards and exec teams