Introducing an excellence leader to their school leadership team can give a headteacher peace of mind, whilst reassuring other staff that school improvement is being led by someone in touch with the classroom

When implementing new ideas, there are often two major barriers that need to be overcome. The first is the genuine concern offered by some school staff that things are always changing and schools are always doing something new – for example, a new approach to planning or changes to assessment procedures. New ideas can hit brick walls almost immediately and as soon as the word ‘initiative’ is mentioned! So how can leaders get over this barrier? How can they present new ideas to staff without crashing into a wave of apathy and resentment?

Secondly, many school leaders do not have their own classes, with some headteachers having no teaching commitment at all. Do your staff ever think: ‘She can talk the talk, but can she walk the walk?!’ It can become very hard for teaching staff to take new ideas on board if the idea did not come from the chalkface. ‘How do they know this is going to work? Have they used it themselves? I’d like to see them try!’

And here lies the crux of the problem – too many new ideas are initiated by school leaders who are not in touch with the classroom grassroots.

Introducing the excellence leader
There is no general agreement among schools on what the term excellence leader means. Schools that employ one tend to work on the premise of an agreed focus for a set amount of time. Most will be given a specific focus that has been identified as an area that requires significant improvement usually as part of the school improvement plan. Their role is to focus on the coaching of staff to fine tune their skills in order to bring the best out of them. It is likely that, upon appointment, and as trust develops, their coaching role will evolve over time. There may be some degree of ‘mission creep’ as they are asked for advice on a range of different issues.

Choosing an excellence leader
As this is a key appointment it is vital that significant thought goes into choosing who the most suitable person within the school is. It is quite likely that if you decide to go along the excellence leader route you will already have someone in mind. Due to the nature of the role it would probably be ill-advised to select a member of the senior leadership team to do this. Staff with a non-SLT role within the school, such as a year group leader or perhaps one of best class teachers, who has no particular desire to move into formal leadership, may be suited to the role. You may be in the fortunate position where you have more than one suitable member of staff, in which case you will need to hold formal interviews.

What sort of skills should we be looking for?
The person you appoint needs to have a proven track record in the classroom, perhaps with several outstanding lesson observations to their name. They need not have been teaching for a long time; it is not the experience alone that makes a great teacher, but what you do with that experience.
One of the most important features that you are looking for comes from a person that is able to command the respect of the rest of the staff. This is where serious consideration needs to be made on whether a member of the senior leadership team is appropriate for this appointment or if some form of senior management detachment is more suitable. There is considerable advantage to the non-SLT route. Firstly, the advice of an excellence leader comes without an edge to it, there are no hidden points being made. Staff know that advice is coming from an expert in that field whose purpose is to develop skills rather than be a mouthpiece for the head! Secondly, staff need to know that they are able to approach an excellence leader in confidence and feel comfortable in doing so. They need to know that if they are having difficulty in, for example, planning or delivery, they can raise the issue with the excellence leader knowing that it won’t have implications for performance management or promotions later down the line. However, while the separation from the SLT may be desirable, an excellence leader will need to work closely with them for support with the strategic direction.

Probably the most important skill you need to look for in an excellence leader is the ability to communicate their willingness to develop others. They will need to have a good understanding of new ideas and approaches and how these can be implemented. It is important that they are able to respect the position that teachers approach them in and appreciate the complexities of providing a coaching role. Do they have the capacity to be analytical of their own skills and the abilities of others and when doing so, are they able to ask the right questions that will challenge and provoke the right responses? Finally, make sure that you appoint a risk taker, a person who is going to take on new ideas and run with them, someone who is prepared to think outside the box and trial ideas, reporting back to others on the success, failures and how things can be improved.

A case study
At Long Meadow School in Milton Keynes it became clear that attempts to improve writing had met with some success, but not enough to drive standards to the next level. One member of staff had made particular progress with writing while implementing a creative curriculum. It was decided that by appointing an excellence leader we would increase our chances of making accelerated progress. Sarah Hand takes up the story.

‘First, I had to look at why we were not making as much progress as we would have liked in writing. We noticed that, not surprisingly, boys were our most significant stumbling block. We decided that by raising the profile of the subject with a series of well planned activities we would aim to get the children to see the subject in a new light. Second, our staff, while not lacking ability, were short of confidence in ways of moving their children on. As an excellence leader, rather than a member of the senior management team, I was able to gain the confidence of staff who felt that I had no axe to grind. They knew that the advice that I offered them was coming from someone who was working directly with children rather than it being just theory and perhaps rhetoric! The teachers knew that the advice had been tried and tested in my own class where it had been successful. Finally, I wanted to know more about what motivates boys and decided to initiate some action research into the subject.

‘One of the areas I wanted to develop first was writing for purpose. I felt that if the children knew that their writing was going to end up somewhere, perhaps even in print, then it may motivate them to write to the best of their ability. I was able to work closely with a professional printing firm and was able to negotiate a price of £5 for a bound 80-page A5 book. Staff then worked with children to produce 100-word stories linked to their literacy topic at the time.

‘The children created a hand-written story, which was then typed and edited by parent volunteers. Each child was given their own page showing their name, their written and typed version of the story and a photograph of them. The collection of stories was then made available to parents to order and many ordered multiple copies for friends and family as Christmas gifts.

‘As well as making a small profit (which was reinvested into promoting literacy), the book project played a significant part in raising the profile of writing, allowing the children to see the excitement that can be gained in writing for purpose.

‘As a school we also wanted to inspire the children by providing them with the opportunity to work alongside a professional author. We carefully selected who we worked with, and the children were able to gain an understanding of the creative processes that an author goes though in order to create a story. This taught the children a powerful lesson in the importance of story planning and drafting – something that some of the boys particularly had failed to see the benefit of.

‘I was given dedicated time each week to fulfil the role in a high quality learning environment. I held a weekly drop-in clinic where staff could request support in advance and then have cover provided for their class. Although, over time, my role became embedded into our learning culture, the coaching support often became informal as staff would take time to talk to me as and when opportunities arose.

‘I would work closely with staff in the development of their planning with support being provided in the development of the links between learning intentions, success criteria and the learning activity. My creative skills were put to good use and included developing links between literacy and the rest of the curriculum, developing the use of purposeful talk and the use of drama in literacy lessons as vehicles for accelerated development. I was also able to team teach with teachers in their classrooms and model lessons and teaching techniques for them with their class as well as my own.’

Measuring success
The excellence leader proved to be a very successful appointment as her relationship developed with staff. Teachers became increasingly comfortable with approaching her for advice and the value of the support was fed back to the SMT after lesson observations and performance management interviews. The excellence leader’s work meant that she was able to identify general areas for development and was able to address these in CPD opportunities during staff meetings and Inset days.

The impact in our school of having an excellence leader has been significant and after running with the role for a year, we have decided to continue with it. The response from staff to the role has been very encouraging. In our monitoring and evaluation of coaching, all staff felt that the support they received was good or outstanding in improving their confidence and practice.

How else could an excellence leader be used?
With no hard and fast rules on how an excellence leader can be deployed, school leaders have incredible flexibility about their roles. School improvement plans identify possible areas for the involvement of an excellence leader. An excellence leader could be used to develop teacher’s skills in:

  • developing the role of subject leaders
  • developing areas of core subjects, such as mental maths or investigative skills in science
  • developing a more creative approach to planning
  • providing coaching expertise in behaviour management
  • supporting SEN or EAL
  • improving planning skills
  • implementing practical assessment techniques.

When devising future plans and their implementation it is certainly worthwhile considering the appointment of an excellence leader.

David Morley is a deputy headteacher