The NCSL is doing much more than training the next generation of heads, as Crispin Andrews discovers when speaking to Paul Bennett.

It is seven years since the National College for School Leadership (NCSL) was officially established by Tony Blair at the New Heads Conference in 2000. Funded by the DCSF, the college aims to help schools provide the excellent leadership that can make a difference to children’s lives. Last year the NCSL was asked by the secretary of state for children, schools and families, Ed Balls, once again to consider key issues facing primary heads and how it was planning to address them in order to support the drive for higher standards in primary schools and progress for all pupils. At the time the secretary of state said: ‘Running a school is a challenging and complex job. We know that the best schools do not simply leave all the leadership to the head. They utilize senior teaching staff, deputy heads and bursars to take on responsibilities that help the school run smoothly.’

What the NCSL can offer

We spoke to Paul Bennett, operational director – Strategic Initiatives Primary at the NCSL, to find out exactly what the college offers primary headteachers.

What are the NCSL’s main goals and current priorities?

The college is there to help schools identify, grow and support current and future school leaders so that they can have a positive impact on children’s lives and life chances within and beyond their schools. A major priority is ensuring the supply of high-quality school leaders over the next few years – growing tomorrow’s leaders. The National Professional Qualification for Headship is being redesigned to ensure the next generation of headteachers are equipped with the knowledge, skills and experience to lead 21st-century schools.

Another priority is to explore, develop and disseminate new models of leadership – developing case studies of different, flexible models of leadership as no single model fits all contexts. We are also exploring ways of enabling outstanding leaders to provide further support to the leadership of other schools – the National Leaders of Education program is under way and other local leadership support activities have been set up in London and are planned in Greater Manchester and the Black Country.

What are the college’s main areas of activity?

There are four main areas. Firstly, we run a number of programs that provide the opportunity to tailor learning to your own development needs and the needs of your school. Developing leaders from emerging to experienced.

Secondly, there are a number of strategic initiatives including: London and City Challenge, National Leaders of Education, Associate Heads Program. Thirdly, through research we aim to find out more about effective leadership and use this knowledge to influence future policy and practice. Fourthly, online learning opportunities for school leaders. The Learning Gateway is our innovative virtual learning environment providing school leaders with access to online communities and resources such as the Leadership Library. The gateway also enables program participants to complete work online and to track their progress. The college also has a key role in influencing policy through our work with the DCSF and other agencies.  The advice given to the Secretary of State on the key issues facing primary leadership is an example of this.

What advice did you give to the secretary of state about the issues facing primary leadership?

We advised that there are five main issues. First, to ensure that the role of primary headteacher is manageable in a range of contexts and that heads have the capacity to meet the radical mix of challenges they now face – especially that they are able to focus their energy on leading learning and teaching. A key feature of enhancing capacity is to promote the role of school business managers to take on the management of HR, finances, facilities and health and safety issues, for example. Second, that established, new and aspiring leaders have the necessary leadership knowledge, skills and competencies to lead in the complex contexts of 21st-century primary schools. Third, that the influence of effective leaders is spread more widely to improve performance across schools. Fourth, to ensure that schools have leadership structures that are appropriate and sustainable for their contexts. Finally, to strengthen governance and, where necessary, change the structure of governance.

Why is leadership in primary schools so crucial?

The quality of primary leadership is critical to the progress children make because the foundations laid in primary schools powerfully influence their future lives and life chances.

What sort of leadership programs do you run?

These are many and varied, but in essence we want to help school leaders develop the knowledge and skills to lead schools in an increasingly complex and changing educational world. Programs are increasingly tailored to meet the individual needs of a wide range of school leaders and are not simply ‘one size fits all’ training courses. The flagship program is NPQH, which is a requirement for those wishing to move into headship. Leadership Pathways provides a personalized approach to developing aspiring leaders. There is also the Heads for the Future program through which experienced headteachers can refresh their professional qualities, skills and expertise and we are looking at setting up programs to develop consultant leaders who can work beyond their schools. Leading from the Middle helps schools grow leadership capacity from among their middle-level leaders. With the Primary Curriculum review imminent it is more important than ever that headteachers have the time to focus on the leadership of teaching and learning. How can NCSL help schools develop the leadership capacity that allows this to happen? We are in the process of initiating programs to further develop the role of highly skilled school business managers. Already we have the Certificate and Diploma in School Business Management, but over the next few months working with the DCSF and local authorities, we will establish 24 demonstration projects across the country to monitor the effectiveness of advanced school business managers (ASBM) and school business directors (SBD).

Why do primary headteachers need highly skilled school business managers?

Initial research carried out by McKinsey for NCSL suggests improved school business management could save up to one third of a headteacher’s time. Headteachers, particularly in the primary sector, are reporting that their role has grown significantly with increasing organizational complexity and a demand for more external partnerships.

The proposed introduction of ‘advanced school business managers’ and ‘school business directors’ aims to make the role of head more effective and more attractive in complex contexts such as federations of schools. It will create additional space for heads to focus on leading teaching and learning within their schools by relieving them of many organizational tasks connected with the day-to-day running of a school or group of schools. These new posts would also mean that procurement can be spread over several schools with a more joined-up approach to purchasing and a range of other activities that may span more than one school. This could save both time and money. You mentioned that schools are now expected to work towards a wider agenda than ever before and to develop and sustain effective working practices with an increasingly varied range of partner organizations. What other support does NCSL offer to help school leaders develop capacity in these areas? The Multi Agency Team Development Program (MATD) that was rolled out in January is designed to make a significant contribution to local delivery of Every Child Matters. The course is about helping teams to transcend organizational boundaries and work well together tackling real projects and issues. The program is over six months, comprising a 24-hour residential event and four one-day facilitator-led workshops. Also included is a team personality assessment profile, work with actors, and an option of working closely with consultants in a team’s locality between events. NCSL is also working with the Training and Development Agency for Schools to explore some of the more challenging aspects of addressing the Every Child Matters and extended schools agenda, and is supporting a number of school leaders and local authorities to find local, sustainable and quality solutions.

Can school leaders access ongoing advice and support on Every Child Matters short of going on a course or attending a seminar?

We now have a free online resource called ECM Leadership Direct – developed with the help of leaders from schools, children’s centers, the community and agencies. Content drawn from practice and NCSL development work over the past three years has been migrated onto the site which has unrestricted access via the web. There is an authoritative bank of knowledge, case studies, tools, stimulating think pieces and publications that can be taken away and used locally. We expect the resource to grow and evolve, with new content every month and leaders able to share their own experiences, as the ECM agenda unfolds.

The design of ECM Leadership Direct also breaks new ground as it is based on ‘mind mapping’ in recognition that leaders operate in different contexts and are at different stages of development. It reflects the organic and local nature of ECM delivery and allows leaders to take what they want, when they want it, and to navigate their way through themes.

How else can headteachers and school leaders access advice from the NCSL?

The website www.ncsl.org.uk is always a good place to start. There are links to a great deal of research, overviews of the programs we offer and details of how to enroll on our programs. Tomorrow’s Leaders Today – an NCSL online resource – is a particularly useful site for growing leadership capacity and promoting leadership succession and there is a whole section of the site dedicated to primary leadership.

The NCSL Leadership Network is also a way of accessing support. In each region there are two headteachers seconded to NCSL whose role it is to encourage schools to collaborate and set up local networking structures. So far 5,000 schools are affiliated to this network

And finally…

School leadership in the 21st century is about more than headteachers. Whether you are a middle leader who wants to take the next step up the leadership ladder or simply improve school capacity as part of your existing team, or the school business manager looking to improve your own professional standards, the NCSL clearly has something to offer you.

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