In January 2006, Lord Adonis, then under-secretary of state at the Department for Children, Schools and Families, invited representatives from the National College, the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust and the children’s charity Absolute Return for Kids to visit New York to examine a new charity – aptly called New Leaders for New Schools – set up to find and accelerate suitable candidates for headship. On their return, motivated by what they’d seen, the research group recommended a similar scheme be trialled in London schools to address educational disadvantage and combat the impending shortage of headteachers.

The proposed programme was to be different from other leadership programmes in that it would be urban-based, mission-driven and transformational in nature. And so the Future Leaders story began.

Future Leaders is based on the premise that every child has potential, and aims to help them realise it by developing outstanding leaders for challenging urban schools. Since its inception in 2006, the programme has recruited five cohorts, and is nationally recognised as a successful educational leadership charity. It has expanded year on year, now operating in London, north-west England, Yorkshire and the Humber, the West Midlands, the south coast and Bristol and is training more than 200 participants, with seven already having gained headship.

The innovative scheme recruits and trains current and former teachers who believe in the core mission of the programme and have the potential and the desire to achieve headship in around four years. A combination of residential and on-the-job training (which takes place in the form of a one-year residency placement) provides an excellent CPD opportunity for those wanting to realise their own potential as well as that of the children they support.

The selection process
Working with the Hay Group, Future Leaders has identified and devised a suite of competencies based on those of successful leaders, together with a strong sense of social justice and a determination to close the achievement gap for children in challenging urban schools. An initial online application teases out the first of these competencies through essay-based submissions and online tests. Those who clear this stage are invited to an assessment centre, where they take part in a variety of challenging activities in which they will be scored against the Future Leaders competencies. The rigorous selection process means that of those who apply, about one in seven is invited on to the programme.

The training provision
Once on the programme, participants have to undertake intensive training over the summer. This comprises an induction event, two residential weekends and a two-week residential. The high-quality and innovative training model devised by educational leadership experts is designed to offer a practical and inspirational experience. Participants work alongside their allocated coach (an existing or former head) and previous participants for experiential senior leadership activities and receive support and feedback during the training to prepare them for a successful residency year. Working as the new leadership team to produce a vision, curriculum and action plan for a new school that has been put into special measures, role-playing with professional actors and continuous assessment are just some of the programme’s methods to develop participants’ leadership competencies to prepare them for the residency year.

The programme has six main elements, centred on the principle that every child, even those from the most challenging background, can succeed at school given the right support and leadership. These are:

  • effective teaching and learning
  • school culture
  • change and project management
  • leadership behaviours and styles
  • effective use of data
  • personal and situational leadership.

The programme is designed to make sure that participants:

  • are challenged in their thinking
  • feel reassured they are ready to take on senior leadership
  • receive practical tools, experiences and advice to ensure they are competent as senior leaders
  • have an ongoing network of support from the organisation itself and their peers
  • feel inspired by the training and motivated to succeed in their school
  • reflect on the knowledge and skills gained to further develop CPD programmes in their school (see case study).

Case Study: Nigel Whittle, Palatine Sports College, Blackpool
As assistant headteacher for whole-school teaching and learning including responsibility for staff CPD, I aim to ensure CPD is not done to staff, but rather by and with staff, enabling them to take real ownership of their own development. My other main aim has been to develop a compelling moral purpose behind the need for training and professional development. It is not for our CV, letter of application or to appear flash at an interview. It is to enable us to be the best teachers we can be for the benefit of our most needy young people.

The whole experience of Future Leaders has made me ask one question – are our schools set up to enable those children to thrive and achieve? The short answer is ‘no’.

The Future Leaders programme has reminded me that too many of our secondary schools are failing too many of our children. We’re sending them out into the 21st century through the doors of 20th-century schools. 

The programme makes clear that we need dramatic changes at all levels to effect the change our children need to be successful now and in the future. To do that, staff must be given the necessary opportunities and skills through meaningful, practical and structured continuing professional development.

A little over a year ago I was sitting in an auditorium listening to an inspirational Future Leaders speaker – Jay Altman – explaining how it was possible to drastically shift a school culture to support and challenge staff and children. I thought, ‘I could do that’. Fast forward six months and it’s a wet, grey Thursday afternoon and I’m just about to begin the first ‘Terrific Thursday’ staff training session.

I start off trying to embed a ‘moral purpose’, outlining figures about the town our school serves – crime figures, unemployment statistics, free school meals data and the attainment gap, and so on.  I have to get across quickly why staff are sat in a crowded room at the end of a long, wet and windy day. It seems to work and people are beginning to realise that CPD is for the benefit of the children, not to allow them to tick boxes for Ofsted.

The ‘Terrific Thursday’ sessions were launched at the start of the year. A range of topics was planned and outlined for staff to dip in and out of as appropriate for their development needs or as guided by their line manager. Classroom management, assessment for learning, accelerated learning, leadership, etc, have all been covered in 20-minute bite-sized chunks. We no longer sit staff in rooms for hours on end while some plan their shopping lists. Take-up has been good. There is no objection to giving up 20 minutes in a busy working day or week when you’re going to get a good idea out of it to try in the classroom the next day.

Alongside the Thursday sessions we’ve established a two-tiered approach to staff coaching. Each member of staff has a ‘peer coach’, so colleagues work together with another teacher or member of staff on a similar level to them in the school. The pairs observe each other and develop ideas for improving their ‘focus’ area. Further, at the beginning of the year we appointed four excellent lead coaches, who work intensively to diagnose, support and improve colleagues in the school through eight to 10-week blocks. These colleagues went through a rigorous interview process and now meet with me weekly to discuss progress being made and next steps.

I said earlier that one of my main aims was to enable staff to take responsibility for their own development. The role of the senior leadership team is not to dominate or tell. It is to set a clear direction and then provide a safety net for all colleagues to develop, train and coach each other to continually improve in a supportive yet challenging environment. Future Leaders continually reminds participants it is not about one person or the ‘super-head’, but about teams of people and ‘no islands’, which is the philosophy of CPD we’ve worked from at Palatine.

Our school, like every school, has a wealth of talent, skill and ambition in the staffroom. These are the people who coach each other or deliver training sessions and it’s leading to real, tangible benefits, as Ofsted noted last year, pointing out: ‘Palatine is a rapidly improving school. Recently strengthened leadership and support for staff is leading to significantly increased attainment and improved quality of learning, progress and teaching.’

Nigel Whittle was part of the Future Leaders Cohort 2009, North-West region

The residency year

During residency, each participant works as a member of the senior leadership team, carrying a teaching load in line with other senior leaders and receiving mentoring from the headteacher, which helps them gain the key experiences school leaders often need to succeed.

They also have the option to attend modular training days, regional training events and a cohort residential weekend. As a core element of continuing professional development, participants visit exemplary charter schools in the United States and free schools in Sweden, where they are able to see at first hand what it takes to achieve high aspirations for students, and leave feeling inspired and equipped with new ideas and practical tools to implement in their own schools.

As an additional part of the training, participants must carry out two specific projects – a data-driven assessment and a whole-school impact in an area determined by the residency school.

They also undergo a series of assessments by their dedicated coach to help determine their progress and guide their development needs. Regular feedback is sought from their headteachers and/or in-school mentors to determine the level of senior leadership post they should apply for in Year 2 and beyond. Bespoke career support is provided to assist them with their applications.

To be considered, residency schools should:

  • be situated in an urban area (preferably with more than 15% of pupils eligible for free school meals)
  • be achieving year-on-year improvements in outcomes for children
  • be committed to continuing professional development for all staff
  • have strong talent management capabilities to further the development of participants.

Year 2 and beyond
Participants are supported in their bid to secure senior leadership posts in challenging urban schools, where they use the tools, experiences and skills they will have acquired to deliver impact and gain further experience and knowledge for their own continuing professional development. They continue to benefit from formal training and regular coaching visits as they prepare for the National Professional Qualification for Headship and, ultimately, for headship itself.

Schools considering Future Leaders as a CPD programme can:

  • help drive system change by bringing the programme to the attention of an outstanding middle leader or assistant headteacher, who could go on to become a high-performing headteacher in a challenging urban school
  • identify an outstanding middle leader, an assistant headteacher or other member of staff suitable for the programme. A successful applicant could request an internal residency in his or her own school as a member of the school leadership team
  • partner with another school and encourage two outstanding middle leaders or assistant headteachers who, if successful in their application, could swap schools for 12 months and each join the partner school’s leadership team
  • apply to be a residency school and help train the next generation of school leaders.

For more information on the programme and to find out about applying, becoming a Future Leaders residency school or filling a senior leadership vacancy, please visit or call 020 3116 0808.

Sir Iain Hall is a founding member of and executive adviser to Future Leaders