This is the first edition of fortnightly e-bulletin, Secondary Headship. Published alongside our print newsletter of the same name, will provide you with topical information and advice to support your work as a senior leader in a secondary school

Secondary Headship will highlight key issues in the world of secondary education, providing you with practical ideas and guidance to help you secure good outcomes for the young people and families you work with.

We hope you will find it inspiring and thought provoking, as well as offering some useful ideas and practical strategies.

Staffing: Getting the right people on the bus

In his book Good to Great, Jim Collins identifies a number of elements involved in developing high-performing organisations. One of the key ingredients, he asserts, is staffing, or as he puts it, ‘getting the right people on the bus’. This is obviously as important for schools as it is for businesses run for profit, however it begs the question which people are the right people?

The Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) are in no doubt that Advanced Skills Teachers (AST) can play a crucial role in the school improvement agenda and are the kind of staff needed ‘on the bus’. ASTs feature prominently in the DSCF programmes for schools facing difficulties, such as National Challenge and Gaining Ground. In both programmes schools are encouraged to use additional funding to appoint ASTs in order to improve the quality of teaching and learning.

Is this the right approach and does it have an impact?

wo years ago we made a conscious decision, as a school, to move towards a policy of appointing ASTs in response to a number of key issues, most notably the need dramatically to improve teaching and learning and quickly to overcome the variable quality of middle leadership. In order to make this a reality, there was a need to envision what this would look like within the staffing structure of the school. This involved considering some fundamental questions, such as:

  • Is the AST additional to existing post-holders?
  • Does the AST double as head of department?
  • Can the school afford ASTs?
  • Which subject(s) should be targeted?
  • How many should be appointed?
  • Should ASTs be on the Senior Leadership Team?

Most schools operate along fairly traditional department lines with a head of department, second in department and possibly another TLR post-holder in a large department. Our decision was to focus on the appointments as being additional to existing post-holders and to plan for a team of four covering the core subjects of maths, English, science and ICT.

Once this had been decided, the school staff were involved in a formal consultation to alter the staffing structure. In order to create additional funding to support the plan, a number of small TLR posts covering aspects such as gifted and talented, enterprise coordinator and work related learning coordinator were removed from the structure. In my experience these posts are usually the preserve of talented young teachers and are used more for retention purposes than for the actual role itself. We publicly acknowledged this and now make more use of recruitment and retention (R&R) payments for that specific purpose. This decision released a significant sum of money to be invested in AST appointments.

Interestingly, at the time we advertised our first two posts there was little interest. Within our local authority no high school had appointed an AST, therefore it was a departure from the norm and whilst many staff contacted the school to discuss the situation, many were put off by the thought of the accreditation process. Since Easter 2008, however, we have appointed three ASTs; in maths, English and science. They operate as a discrete team but also within a department structure of a head of department, second in department and Key Stage 3 coordinator. They each have roles that are linked to:

  • their subject specialism
  • whole-school responsibilities and
  • outreach work.

It is worth noting that not all appointments need to be external. Two of our appointments were, however one involved an internal appointment of a head of department changing roles; this has enabled the school to retain an excellent member of staff who would have otherwise moved for an assistant headteacher post elsewhere.

It is important to note that few applicants for AST posts will already have accreditation, therefore there is a degree of risk involved in their appointment. We decided to delay applying for their accreditation until such time as their portfolios were sufficiently robust and that they were fully settled into the life of the school. This patience has paid off, as all passed with flying colours in June 2009 (some six to 12 months after their appointment).

Has it made a difference and would we do the same again?

The answer is absolutely yes! The staff appointed have had a disproportionately positive impact, not unlike the butterfly effect as identified by Tim Brighouse within the London Challenge. Their impact can be observed in the following areas:

Teaching and learning
They have ‘raised the bar’ for other staff in demonstrating what is possible with our students. They work closely with individual staff as well as leading high-quality professional development sessions for the whole staff. Many staff observe them teach and work with them in team-teaching scenarios.

Whole-school projects
ASTs have taken on substantial areas of responsibility, including student voice across the school; tracking, monitoring and planning effective intervention; and literacy across the curriculum. Each area has been tackled with rigour and we are already noting significant improvements in these areas.

Outreach work
The team of ASTs work with the middle school linked to the high school through our hard federation and replicate this work with our other feeder middle schools. Feedback from partner schools is unfailingly positive and is definitely an area for further development as a key part of the school’s pupil recruitment strategy.

There is a truism that ‘you get what you pay for’. Never has that been truer than in the appointment of ASTs within a school. In our experience they add a new dimension in the armoury of the school improvement agenda and I can foresee a time when we might have an AST in every department in school.


  • Collins, J (2001) Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap… and Others Don’t, Random House Business Books
  • Brighouse, T and Woods, D, Butterflies for school improvement, London Challenge
  • DCSF, Gaining Ground,

This e-bulletin issue was first published in November 2009

About the author: Kieran McGrane and the leadership team at Federation of West Sleekburn Middle School and Bedlingtonshire Community High School, Northumberland